Wilco – The Whole Love
Jeff Pearson, September 28, 2011
Originally published by Life’s Sweet Breath
Listen: “I Might”
“No, I froze. I can’t be so far away from my wasteland,” Jeff Tweedy’s shaky, familiar voice–a voice that just immediately makes you feel at home–sings from underneath a fractured drum pattern and string swells as Wilco’s latest full-length, The Whole Love, kicks off. The opening track, “Art of Almost,” throws you right into the fire, building upon the same pattern across its seven-minute timeframe, picking up steam, picking up noise, and dropping you to the ground by the end. It culminates in all six members of the Chicago-based outfit screaming on their instruments with a virtuosic command with a loose feel that almost feels like a first take. The rhythm section of Glenn Kotche and John Stirrat, on drums and bass respectively, create an intensely rapturous backdrop as Tweedy and lead guitarist Nels Cline wildly let loose on their guitars, and Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen fill in whatever blanks they can find to create one of the most vivid sonic climaxes in recent memory. It’s one of those songs–being in the opening slot of the album–that leaves you thinking, “Where can they go from here?”
It should really come as no surprise, however. If you look Wilco’s catalog, each album has an opening track that immediately pulls you in while still establishing the mood for the remainder of the album. All across Wilco’s prolific career, from A.M. to Wilco (The Album) and everything in between, the band has made serious statements with the opening tracks. The Whole Love is no different. “Art Of Almost” sets the tone for the remainder of the album—it is at once reflective and ethereal, with the propensity to burst into an a raucous exploration of sound. Sure, the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot days of brink-reaching experimentation are gone, but The Whole Love sees Wilco at their most balanced and, more importantly, comfortable.
It makes sense that it would seem this way; The Whole Love marks the first record the band has made without the constraints of a label pushing or pulling them in a certain direction. The band now operates under their own terms, their own label, dBpm. It’s hard to say how tight the band’s shackles were up to this point, but The Whole Love certainly does sound like a freer, happier Wilco. With “I Might,” the band really settles into the groove that occupies the majority of the remainder of the album. It’s fuzzed-out Americana at its best, with Tweedy spinning his usual slightly opaque tales of a disillusioned man who doesn’t want to let us know exactly what is bothering him or how we can help make it better. The song is characterized by truncated and seemingly disconnected lyrical outbursts over punchy, straightforward instrumental structures. The coexistence of dark imagery and uplifting sound is a major theme throughout the record, and this juxtaposition resonates long after the needle stops.
The ups and downs of the emotions on The Whole Love are at times jarring, and at others joyous. Tracks like “Dawned On Me” and “Standing O,” upbeat romps coursing through the history of pop music, sit happily beside the melancholia of “Sunloathe” and “Black Moon,” the differences illuminating one another–or darkening them, depending on how you look at it. Wilco has always been a fascinating band in this regard, using darkness to shine beauty upon their music, or the sound of exultation to shroud pain or angst. This point is made most known on “Open Mind,” a slow, twangy number that, as only Tweedy can do, would do just as well soundtracking a horseback ride through the uncharted American west as it would a cab ride through Chicago, the town’s brick and steel skeleton stretching towards the sky all around you. The somewhat downtrodden tone of the music is lightened by Tweedy’s loving musings, “If I could bring a light to shine a light upon the dark and disobeying night, so young, but I still say we’re too old for clichés. Oh I can only dream of the dreams we’d share if you were so inclined, I would love to be the one to open up your mind.”
While Tweedy and company have always made use of abnormality and delusion to achieve beauty or incite emotion, The Whole Love actually ends with one of their more straightforward, downright beautiful, albeit heartbreakingly so, songs of their career. The track, “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” clocks in at over twelve minutes, with a delicately plucked acoustic guitar playing arguably the most singable melody on the record, as Jorgensen sprinkles light piano lines throughout. The song’s narrative reportedly comes from a conversation Tweedy had with, you guessed it, Jane Smiley’s boyfriend, where the song’s namesake told of his father’s overbearing religious beliefs and the fact that he actually felt relief when the father finally passed. The song illustrates the universality that Tweedy is able to achieve with his lyrics; the line, “Bless my mind, I miss being told how to live. What I learned without knowing how much more I owe than I can give,” speaks loudly on many levels. In the context of the song, the son is reflecting on the condemnation brought down upon him by his father, but it also rings true of the band itself, now living free of label restraints—their very own overbearing father.