Since Wilco unceremoniously dumped Jay Bennett after the recording of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, frontman Jeff Tweedy has continued in his attempt to carve out a unique identity for the band. With Bennett on board, Wilco was becoming an adventurous gloss-rock machine for the alternative scene, with Summerteeth the gleaming epitome of Bennett’s lustrous pop-inflected vision.
Without Bennett, the band has struggled to find a studio sound that fits it hand-in-glove. Ironically, or perhaps coincidentally, in the wake of Bennett’s sudden death, Wilco appears to have found its sweet spot.
Wilco (The Album) isn’t the burst of audio sunshine that was Sky Blue Sky, nor is it a ponderous navel-gazer like A Ghost Is Born or the experimental sound sculpture (with chords) that echoed through the halls of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s a little bit of all that—the best bits, mostly, which makes it the most functional post-Bennett Wilco album to date.
The band swaggers through an opening track—fittingly titled “Wilco (The Song)”—that plays out as a midway come-on from a hip carnival barker (“This is an aural arms open wide/A sonic shoulder for you to cry on/Wilco will love you, baby”). And true to its word, the rest of the album will cure what ails ya.
Highlights include the vocal urgency of the lush “One Wing,” a nod to ’70s AM radio on “You Never Know” and a duet on “You and I” with Feist—the first female voice to appear on a Wilco album. Tweedy also maintains his gift for wrapping dour lyrics in pretty packaging. On “Sonny Feeling” he belts out a story of dark nights and cruel kids beneath a bed of playful keyboards, Nels Cline’s buoyant guitar licks and a foot-stomping beat that calls to mind the hoedown raves of the Being There days.
All told, it’s a fully realized effort that finally establishes a blueprint for success for a band that’s always been just about—but not quite—there.