Wilco has grown up
The Hideout is a bar in the ostentatiously hip inner north western suburbs of Chicago, although its dead-end location in a sea of warehouses might not suggest that at first glance.
The bar doesn’t have a sign and they say it’s been operating legally since 1932. It’s also the bar that almost everyone who is, or has been, in the band Wilco has played in.
The night we dropped in Leroy Bach, the multi-instrumentalist but mostly keyboardist who played with Wilco from late 1999 until 2005, was playing with Dan Bitney, a dude from the experimental Chicago band Tortoise.
It was one of those one song per set, 30 minutes each, affairs which was fascinating - in a car crash sort of way.
You’d expect a bar like the Hideout to jump on inauguration night, given that the new president Barack Obama lived in nearby Hyde Park. But no, they shut the bar and the whole crowd went to Washington.
They didn’t get to see the inauguration live, though. As Nat the barman – who makes hotel foyer sculptures for a day job – explained, they partied so hard the night before they were too sick to get out of bed. Like people in Australia, they watched it all on TV.
I was thinking about the Hideout while listening to Wilco’s new ablum (the ninth studio effort) which is called Wilco (the album). It’s quite simply not just a contender for album of the year, it’s a clear favourite and will need something sensational to beat it to the title.
Since Wilco, and more particularly the band’s resident songster genius Jeff Tweedy, started lacing the sound with electronica and synth sounds from Yankee Hotel Foztrot on, some fans lost patience with the band. This intolerance gained pace through A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky.
With this new album you know from the very start this a mature Wilco that, in the words of the band’s hero, Barack Obama, has put aside childish things. The first song is called Wilco (the song) which is a bit of fun containing the delicious refrain “Wilco will love you, baby’’.
The song also has perfect description of this band: “A sonic shoulder for you to cry on.’’ It marks a band that has grown up. But what sets it apart is that it starts as a fully formed rock song, jumping straight to a driving rhythm adorned with a cut-through guitar riff.
The noodling, the drum moment and the guitar and synthesiser interplay we’d become used to – which often sounded like the band was tuning up – is gone.
The stronger, more confident musical approach is most pronounced in the album’s best tune, Bull Black Nova, a love and mystery song about a Chevrolet car. (What is about 2009, rock musicians and cars – Neil Young’s latest disc, Fork In The Road, is very car heavy.)
But let’s go to the heart of this Wilco grows up story. When Wilco was still an adolescent band, mirroring the angst and anger of a generation searching for meaning they best captured their audience’s discomfort with the 1996 song Misunderstood on the brilliant Being There album.
In this song, Tweedy wrote and sang: “There’s something there that you can’t find/Honest when you’re tellin’ a lie/You hurt but you don’t know why.” When Tweedy performed this song live he’d conclude with a temper tantrum rock and rock foot stomp that left you in no doubt just how angry Wilco and their generation was.
Now we’ve got a new look on life, best seen in You Never Know, a song whose music marries some Beach Boys-era keyboard lines and the soaring guitar sound of those late 1970s heroes, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. There’s even a sampling of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord licks.
But it’s the lyric lines that make you realise that Wilco has so grown up. “Come on children/You’re acting like children/Every generation thinks/It’s the end of world,” Tweedy begins, neglecting all that “end of the world” angst from the mid-1990s.
And when Tweedy delivers the refrain - “I don’t care anymore” – it’s the voice of an adult who is just over it. If you think that all great American rock has to give glimpses of Big Star, the best band that never really was, this album will delight you. The perfect pop guitar lines and the sweetness of the vocal – often belying a blood soaked story line – are married in a way that we haven’t heard much since Alex Chilton and the boys rocked Ardent Studios in Memphis a lifetime ago.
For Big Star fans the song to really wait for comes at the end of the disc, Sonny Feeling, which sounds like the lost song from that band’s Third Album.
So here it is, a fully grown up Wilco record for the new recession. It’ll make you feel better and will offer fresh joy with every listening. Something’s got to be mighty to beat this one.
Wilco (the album) is supposed to be released on June 30. Our listening came courtesy of Tweedy posting it for streaming, unannounced, on his website in late May. Luckily someone was there and downloaded a copy.
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