The flippant (and Harry Nilsson-inspired) album title isn’t a good sign. It’s a Wilco tradition of late, one of many associated with a string of passable and predictable releases that have lacked the imagination of the Chicago band’s 1999-2004 run, a creative spurt that had writers calling it the “American Radiohead.” Well, that nickname is relevant here, in so far that until this year’s sweeping A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead found itself in a similar boat, having settled into a midtempo glitch-pop comfort zone. Rest assured: Wilco sounds neither settled nor comfortable on Schmilco, its 10th and most muted studio album.
Opener “Normal American Kids” signals two things: a folkier, more cantankerous band, despite Schmilco coming from the same recording sessions that bred last year’s catchier, more sanguine Star Wars. Tweedy’s reflective but tortured prose cuts through the acoustic fingerpicking and melodious singing—“High at the time, tight to the grip/Always afraid of those normal American kids”—though ultimately, his recollections feel less like a midlife crisis and more like embittered perspective. His wisened cynicism abounds on the tinkly strummer “Happiness” (which, he says, “depends on who you blame”) and elsewhere on the 12-track collection, which, like Star Wars, barely surpasses the half-hour mark.
Musically, Schmilco sounds sparer, more unpredictable and closer to the vest than any Wilco album in recent memory—particularly evidenced in the galloping diary entry “Cry All Day” and the Lennonesque “Nope”—and the intimacy those qualities produce hints at a transitional phase. The band needed this ornery left turn, and if Schmilco isn’t classic Wilco, its creative housecleaning might make the next one so.