4.0 out of 5
Rest assured, there will be those that will call Wilco’s latest effort, The Whole Love, a “return to form”, which is arguably the laziest of all music critic clichés. And, while it might aptly describe a band firmly planted within a single genre, for a band that wears as many hats as Wilco, the only appropriate response is a snarky: “return to which form?” A return to the Lennon/McCartney pop gems of Summerteeth? The glitchy Jim O’Rourke production magic of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? The pharmacological krautrock of A Ghost Is Born? The guitar-driven, 70’s classic rock of Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album)? Or the alt-country leanings that have permeated each and every record going back to Wilco’s 1995 debut? In other words, “return to form” will mean different things to different Wilco fans. What is immediately clear, however, is that after two consecutive records of bland complacency, Wilco once again sounds focused, and still capable of a sharp left turn or two.
Currently in its 5th incarnation, this is the first time in Wilco’s 17-year history that the band has recorded three records with the same members. While frontman, Jeff Tweedy has been quite vocal in claiming that the current lineup is the band’s best, it has taken three records to bear that out. Much of the lineup criticism has been targeted at guitarist Nels Cline. Often coming off as a bold attempt to pad mediocre songcraft with histrionic guitar leads, Cline’s work on the last two LPs proved a guitar virtuoso is only as beneficial as his ability to meld with the artists around him. On The Whole Love however, Cline’s contribution feels complementary, and more textural than virtuosic. His frenetic playing at the wild conclusion of 7-minute, jaw-dropping opener “Art of Almost” feels earned in the controlled chaos of the arrangement. Likewise, it’s Cline’s distorted slide guitar line during the instrumental chorus of “Born Alone” that gives the track the necessary abrasiveness to rank it among Wilco’s best pop songs. “I was born to die alone”, sings Tweedy in an arrangement that juxtaposes a lyrical darkness with instantly catchy guitar-pop, an effect Wilco perfected on 1999’s Summerteeth, but has rarely employed in recent years.
While Cline’s guitar work is top notch, the real stars of The Whole Love are drummer Glenn Kotche and bassist John Stirratt. Long the unsung heroes of Wilco’s live shows, Kotche and Stirratt are finally getting the LP exposure they so rightly deserve. Pushed to the front of the mix, the two bring a collective punch that runs throughout the record. Their interplay on opener “Art of Almost” and first single “I Might” is nothing short of brilliant, while their more restrained work on tracks such as the gorgeous ballad “Black Moon” show that, despite the heightened exposure, neither musician is above being economical. Credit not only producers Tweedy and Tom Schick for this move, but also keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone who, for the first time, gets his own production credit.
Texturally, The Whole Love is far more intricate than the last two LPs. Be it the glockenspiel backing the Motown driven guitar-pop of “I Might”, clearly another nod to Summerteeth, the mellotron of “Black Moon”, or the pedal steel which runs throughout “Rising Red Lung”, Wilco has clearly utilized the luxury of owning its own record label to take its time in exploring the minutiae of each and every arrangement. This is no more apparent than on 12-minute album closer, “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”. The song’s simple repeating guitar progression incorporates piano, pedal steel, bass, minimal percussion and a host of additional instrumentation floating in the background. It could have resulted in a gratuitous mess, yet ends up being one of the band’s finest moments: “I am cold for my father, frozen underground. Jesus I wouldn’t bother, he belongs to me now.” sings Tweedy, telling the haunting story of a father and son and the religious conflict that exists between them.
With new-found creative control comes the new-found importance of an editor, and although The Whole Love is a good 56-minute record it could have been a great 45-minute record. Tweedy remains enamoured with late 60’s era Beatles and this bogs down tracks such as “Sunloathe”, “Open Mind” and “Capitol City” which disrupt the overall flow of the record. That said, this is the first Wilco album in close to a decade where the band sounds not only like the sum of its parts, but a band that is still willing to take some chances, or, in Tweedy’s words, willing to “measure [oneself] against ridiculous heights of glory, with the firmly rooted reality that reaching that is impossible.”
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