Thursday, April 12, 2007

Wilco – Sky Blue Sky


A few dispatches have already hit the net concerning the new Wilco album, the gist of most centring on its comfortable orientation at the ‘adult’ end of the rock spectrum. Absent are Krautrock freakouts a la “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, along with the lengthy passages of feedback that characterised the albums made with Jim O’Rourke. In fact, “Sky Blue Sky” shares more with the classic pop of 1999’s “Summerteeth” than either of the last two albums, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost Is Born”.

None of which should suggest that this is a disappointing record. Quite the contrary, it’s clearly amongst the band’s best, if yet to prove quite the equal of the last two, especially for those who saw the tension between traditional song craft and avant-garde impulses at the core of their appeal.

In retrospect it was clear on “A Ghost Is Born” that – with a couple of obvious exceptions – Wilco were beginning to incorporate their experiments into deceptively straightforward songs. Listen to “Pure Bug Beauty”, a half-time instrumental version of “Company In My Back” taken from the CD accompanying The Wilco Book, and then listen to the version of “Company In My Back” on the live album, “Kicking Television”. Clearly, it’s open to interpretation (by both listener and performer) as a straight vocal or more textural, experimental piece. (You can hear it on this podcast from Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche)

On the more complex tracks from “Sky Blue Sky” – “Side With The Seeds”, “Shake It Off” – these mutual influences within the band have merged still further, becoming less casually identifiable to we glib commentators. Elsewhere there’s definitely a prioritisation of the song over the skronk - so less tension-release and more purity of flow, for want of a clearer musical expression. There’s even a pursuit of the tone of classic 70s AOR. Warner, you suspect, were rubbing their hands with glee when they heard “Hate It Here” and “What Light”.

Most likely “Sky Blue Sky” simply reflects a harmonious mood within the band. In particular, oft-troubled frontman Jeff Tweedy who, after his successful emergence from rehab for addiction to the painkillers that treated his chronic migraines, is clearly in a more harmonious place himself. "Trading your health for creativity . . . it's a common mistake,'' he commented in a recent interview with the Herald Sun. "People have had it beaten into their heads that some struggle or suffering must go with the creative process. I'm convinced that is a self-perpetuating myth.”

Here’s a clip that perfectly illustrates the working process on “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, we’ll leave you to picture how things have changed to arrive at “Sky Blue Sky”.

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