Wilco - The Whole Love
Release Date: September 27, 2011
Record Label: dBpm
With the exception of one band, no other group has been as constantly evolving, as ready to impart experimental music into their sound, and as closely watched as Wilco. That one other band is Radiohead. And while those Brits often serve as a litmus test, with Wilco it's an especially apt comparison. Both band's debuts were solid synthesists of their respective genres: Pablo Honey being Radiohead's encapsulation of alt rock as AM was Wilco's take on alt-country. Both groups fourth albums (Kid A & Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) were ambitious moves away from what the bands had created (and destroyed) in their first three records adding in ambient and experimental sounds. Both albums signaled the first breaking of the accepted paradigm of the music industry -- Kid A had no singles; YHF hung in limbo as Wilco was dropped by Warner Bros. and picked up by Nonesuch. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that these albums were the pinnacle (and perhaps the last gasp) of the album as a stand alone art form. And this year, we have both Radiohead and Wilco at it again, making albums that destroy what they were once the champions of with albums that seem to be not a unified product but simply a collection of songs grouped together by placement, not aesthetics. The Whole Love is not a story album or what we've come to expect out of the band since the raucous hodge-podge of Being There, rather this album succeeds in a way that their last record Wilco (The Album) failed as a self-portrait for a band whose been with us for almost two decades.
For fans of the band, you're going to be able to make connections to the catalogue. Stunning opener "The Art of Almost" picks up where "Spiders/Kidsmoke" left off. Jaunty "Capitol City" refines and complicates the joyful patter of "Why Would You Wanna Live." And it's not a diss to say that listening to this album, you'll probably reflect on other Wilco albums and songs. It's a tribute to a band that's been around and been as relevant as Wilco has. Here again we have a parallel with Radiohead (and an nod to the now disbanded R.E.M.) -- how many bands are there around that have been as relevant and for as long as Wilco? The answer is not many.
But, relevancy -- in Wilco's case -- is a testament to metamorphosis rather than stability. See I am Trying to Break Your Heart. For now, though, band member upheavals seem to be a thing of the past, which is undoubtedly one reason that The Whole Love feels gleefully relaxed. Another reason, no doubt, is that it's the first record out on their own label (dBpm) as well as being self-produced. It's a far cry from the YHF days and the band fighting the label to put out Being There and Summerteeth. And as nice as it is to hear Tweedy & co. finally in the drivers seat and in control of their own destiny, there are moments on the album where that friction -- Wilco's ability to disrupt and throw a wrench into their own works -- shines. In fact, the most memorable parts of the album, for this reviewer, anyway are the disrupted ones. "Art of Almost," which is a show-stopping first track, is like a three part opera turning and turning until a scalding solo unfolds drawing the song to a noisy crescendo. The rough garage opening of "I Might" is infectious and appears odder (and more intriguing) when the calliope keyboards kick in and do battle with the fuzzed out guitar punctuation. It's as if in-fighting is what makes this record go.
Maybe I love the old Wilco too much that I think that this record seems too easy at times. There's nothing wrong with "Sunloathe" or "Black Moon," but they feel so one-note, so been there, that they get skipped. Whereas a track like "Born Alone" with Tweedy rolling out his trademarked stutter-step poetics, feels like a revelation (about revelation, I might add). Maybe these sagging moments are more about knowing the band, how much change they've undergone, how much more you're ready to see them move, so much so that you're waiting on inspiration at every turn. It's something that honestly, I've struggled with with Wilco, why to me the last two albums were disappointing: they sounded too much like who I knew that Wilco was. I like it when bands are schizo, it keeps me guessing.
If nothing else, The Whole Love is a reason to believe again in Wilco. A testament to a career and endurance. A band makes itself. And every self-portrait only captures you for a moment.