Home Read Classic Album Review: Wilco | Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Classic Album Review: Wilco | Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Jeff Tweedy's roots-rockers reinvent their sound for their incredible fourth album.

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This came out in 2002 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):

 


A reputation is easy to acquire. What’s harder is to live up to it — or live it down.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the daring and uncompromising fourth album from Chicago alt-country icons Wilco, already has a reputation as a troublemaker — and it hasn’t been released yet. In fact, this edgy, experimental album was causing grief before it was finished. During recording, guitarist Jay Bennett quit. Then, when Wilco presented the album to their label Warner, the suits refused to release it. The band ended up buying it back, terminating their contract and going shopping, landing on more eclectic imprint Nonesuch. (Ironically, Nonesuch is owned by Warner, meaning Wilco are right back where they started, while the label ended up buying their album twice. Which pretty much sums up the music business.) So anyway, after that long and troublesome birth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will finally be delivered to stores Tuesday. And after coccooning with my advance copy, I have just one thing to say: What the hell was all the fuss about?

You’d think from all the furor over this record that Wilco had gone off the deep end. Abandoned roots-rock for the atonal skronk of free jazz. Maybe the emotionless edifice of electronica. Or, worse yet, bagpipes. But no. Bottom line is, this is still a Wilco album. The songs are still roots-based, roughly divided between joyously jangly and heartwrenchingly bleak. Jeff Tweedy’s dusty vocals are still front and centre in the mix. The band still play with a loose, ramshackle intimacy. The tunes still have verses and choruses, conventional time signatures, melodies and chord changes. Most of them are still guitar-based. Some of them even have fiddles, for crying out loud.

But here’s the thing that apparently sent the mucky-mucks into conniptions: Thanks to some noisy arrangements and envelope-pushing production (by the band and Chicago post-rocker Jim O’Rourke), this doesn’t sound like every other Wilco album. Synthesizers buzz and blip ambiently — and sometimes, not so ambiently. Noise generators and feedbacking amps add texture and atmosphere. The drums clatter and bang with underproduced flatness. Now and then, an atonal passage or off-time snippet shambles into the mix. In other words, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is no A.M. It’s slower, moodier, noodlier, complex, and slightly less commercial. But anyone who’s familiar with Tortoise and Slint — or even Radiohead and Pavement — need not cringe in apprehension.

Indeed, if you dug Kid A, you’ll probably savour Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s songs. Or at least applaud their ambition. The sprawling album opener I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (wonder what the suits thought of that title?) is equal parts strummy guitar ballad and clink-clunk construct, with an off-key toy piano countermelody and drowsy atmosphere that decays into fuzzy confusion and intermittent feedback. The elegiac Ashes of American Flags, with its eerie vibe, fever-dream coda and mortally wounded lyric (“Speaking of tomorrow / How will it ever come?”) was written prior to Sept. 11, but takes on a different connotation in its wake. The grand Poor Places starts off as a graceful, Beatles-esque orch-pop ballad before swirling into a cyclone of noise and a deadpan voice repeating the album’s title a la Revolution 9. Closing cut Reservations is a sweeping lament of post-rock psychedleia and tortured sentiment (“I’ve got reservations about so many things / But not about you”) that gently, quietly gives way to a creaky, haunting dirge before fading as subtly as an old photo.

It’s pretty innovative stuff, for sure. But those who prefer original-flavour Wilco won’t go away completely unsatisfied. Kamera is a fairly basic, straightforward roots-pop number. Jesus, etc. is a gently grooving piano-based cut. Ditto War On War, whose hypnotic peacenik groove and love vibe are broken intermittently by a squirrelly synthesizer. And the loping Heavy Metal Drummer — the CD’s most commercial track — is a light-hearted ode to youth, summer love and rock ’n’ roll, with the funniest lyrical couplet of the disc: “I miss the innocence I’ve known / Playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned.”

Whether on not you miss the old Wilco, though, it’s obvious Yankee Hotel Foxtrot doesn’t deserve its difficult reputation. The reality is, it’s probably going to be a lot of critics’ album of the year. And deservedly so. It’s easily the most mature, impressive and important achievement of Wilco’s career thus far. And (fingers crossed) a sign of more greatness to come.

Of course, whether they’ll be able to live up to all that — or live it down — is something we’ll have to wait for.