Sky Blue Sky

(Nonesuch; 2007)

By Alan Baban | 13 January 2008

Who here actually likes Sky Blue Sky? Wait, wrong question.

Who here even listens to Sky Blue Sky? It is, incontestably, the most "listenable" record of Wilco's oeuvre, the tipping point where Tweedy all moustachioed and senior doffs his cap and caws: "Y'know what, boys? Let's stop doing all those crazy things that made all those crazy and un-conforming kids think we're cool. Let's stop being the American Radiohead and, uh, howbouts we start being the British Band. Oh, and John -- you did that Autumn Defense record, right?"

This is the new Wilco record. It sounds a lot like you'd expect Wilco to sound, which means it categorically doesn't: the electronics are strictly peripheral, O'Rourke sidelined to tambourine in the naughty kids' corner. No televisions are kicked, no amps mutilated. There is no great "concept." There are (hush!) no really great songs. Is it really an anomaly -- the well-coiffed lord in a house of filching, day-glo rakes? Or did we all just not see this coming? Logical extension of A Ghost is Born (2004) or not, it's clear that Sky Blue Sky is one thing: beige.

It's one of those rare and charming records that sincerely, habitually doesn't give a fuck what you think. No crowd-pleasing sneers or experiments to be deconstructed here: this is the band deconstructed and re-labelled as who they are, not who they'd rather be imitating. What Wilco have done is make their "Wilco" record. Good for them. In an increasingly deranged indie rock haut couture based on foibles and ambitions, where the execution in most cases is so far behind the nebula of the ideas, Jeff Tweedy and co. have struck out. Sky Blue Sky's only ambition is to capture the warm tones of the early '70s rock FM they grew up on and clearly love. The execution is flawless. One can't help but ask, however, "What's the point?"

Aimlessness, it turns out, is the album's central tenet, or its loose conceit. Songs like "Either Way" and "Please Be Patient With Me" take poppy hooks but muffle vestiges of raucousness through pillows: the production (done, this time, by the group) gives ample clarity to each instrument, hitting on a comfortable sonic equilibrium that plays down stylistic inconsequence in favour of exposing the relaxed, intuitive group charisma. It is a faultlessly organic enterprise, which breathes life into a more than a coupla instances of cadaverous songwriting.

Take "Shake It Off," for instance. There is no "song" here, just a couple of scampi riffs. The band, though, make it sound tight, moving into a fuzz-box workout of nuanced guitar bliss that makes me wish my girlfriend bought me lessons with Tom Verlaine, too. But, whatever: this is Nels Kline's first studio record as a fully-fledged member of the band, and although the discretionary disposition of the stuff here doesn't really let him be the riff musketeer, he does a fair job as the sixth man. And, yeah, he does rip it up a few times: without his scabrous, coruscating lead work, songs like "Side With The Seeds" and "You Are My Face" would sink anchor-less into MOR mires, the former's ridiculously yazzed-out close particularly fun.

Even so, "Walken" sounds like the band pussyfooting on granite, the lazy shuffle of "What Light" exhaustively played out till it's all flat and dull. The band gets it right when they're willing to take a few more risks -- like the Broadway skiffle that "Hate It Here" casually mutates into, or that absolutely perfect moment in the title track where Tweedy, sounding cracked and broken, "happy to leave what was my home," pushes himself forcefully into a strained higher register: "I survived -- that's good enough for now." Like the band dynamic, his vocals sound both more restrained and more courageous. It's true, he does mostly stick to his weedy mid-register drawl, but the performance has far more character and complexity, a more urgent and grained sense of humanity and loss than his comparably bland intonations on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001). And this is the Wilco of Sky Blue Sky: more mature, but less professional, less considered. It gives the record a ragged, rambling atmosphere, one unique of any in the band's lauded back-catalogue.

This is why, despite all the virtuoso exercises in routine or the increasingly arbitrary guitar skronks, even the noticeably limited range of the material on offer; despite, in fact, the whole album feeling slight and trivial, Sky Blue Sky works on its own terms. And, hell, even that premise is all sorts of humdrum: yes Jeff, we understand. This is a Wilco record. Being in Wilco must be fun.