The Whole Love
By Brent Ables | 5 October 2011
Before I get to Wilco’s surprisingly good new record The Whole Love, allow me to linger on the past for a moment. In 1994, Jay Bennett, a hyper-talented multi-instrumentalist and producer who began recording in the early ’90s, joined Wilco just as what had been an above-average alt-country/MOR rock outfit led by an enigmatic troubadour became one of the most interesting and important acts in American music. This was not a coincidence. The critical and commercial success of albums like Summerteeth (1999) and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) arguably had as much to do with Bennett’s studio wizardry and experimental inclinations as they did with Tweedy’s haunting songwriting. Nonetheless, Bennett was unceremoniously ousted from the band after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and would continue to work in obscurity for most of the decade. In May of 2009, Bennett filed suit against Wilco in order to fund a hip replacement surgery that his insurance wouldn’t cover, claiming that he was owed unpaid royalties. A few weeks later he was found dead of a painkiller overdose.
The story of Wilco is largely the story of Jeff Tweedy’s collaborators. Those who have seen Sam Jones’ documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart might remember Tweedy’s analogy (relayed by Bennett) about a circle having a centerpoint, and to be sure, Tweedy is and always will be Wilco’s pointman. But a circle isn’t a point: it’s a set of points equidistant from a given center. The point being that Jeff Tweedy is a great songwriter, but Wilco is not his band alone, and as Wilco continues to evolve it becomes more and more clear how reliant Tweedy is upon those he records and performs with.
The songs Tweedy co-wrote with Bennett were the band’s most enduring because they were more than the sum of their parts—Tweedy’s cryptic, abstract folk poems finding their perfect foil in Bennett’s baroque re-imagination of the history of pop-rock. Compare that to an album like Sky Blue Sky (2007), which is so binarily divided between Tweedy’s sleepy verses and Nels Cline’s blistering guitar solos that you could probably mix and match the two components at random and end up with an equally not-very-good album. But if Tweedy & Co. have been at musical odds with each other on their last few albums, the pleasant surprise of The Whole Love is that this latest version of Wilco seems to have finally cohered into a singular creative force, and in doing so, the band has crafted its best album since A Ghost Is Born (2004).
It’s hard to pinpoint one single factor that makes The Whole Love so much stronger than its mediocre predecessor, Wilco (The Album) (2009). The album titles are both pretty bad. It’s the same musicians here, for the most part, and although this is the first album Wilco released on their own label, they haven’t exactly gone lo-fi; their sound is just as clear and polished as it was on the last album. No, the differences here are not superficial but substantive. Tweedy’s lyrics have recaptured much of their surreal, grammar-defying, sinister charm, and he has mercifully spared us the smug, privileged nihilism that Clayton so rightly lambasted in his review of Wilco (The Album).
When he’s at his best here, Tweedy is able to achieve that delicate balance between intimacy and abstraction that made classics like “Via Chicago” and “Ashes of American Flags” so compelling. On “Born Alone,” an upbeat rocker with a crushing guitar fadeout, he confronts his own past addictions: “I have married broken spoke charging smoke wheels / Spit and swallowed opioid / I am the driver at the wheel of the horror / Marching circles at the gate.” Occasionally, it must be said, Tweedy lets himself get a bit too carried away with the “rogue waves of [his] brain,” as with this fragment of utter nonsense from “I Might”: “The Magna Carta’s on a Slim Jim blood / Brutha! / The sunk soul with the coal clean toe / Is the Mutha!” But I, for one, would rather hear an incomprehensible Jeff Tweedy song any day than Starbucks-ready tripe like “You and I.” And I have a feeling most longtime Wilco fans would agree.
Even more than Tweedy’s lyrics, though, it is his bandmates’ efforts at stretching and tinkering with Wilco’s sound that make this record so interesting. To be sure, there are a few unadventurous songs here: “Dawned on Me” and “Open Mind” would have sounded right at home on A.M. (1995), and if that’s your thing, you’ll like almost the whole of The Whole Love. Much more exciting to me is the unexpected rebirth of the experimental spirit that was first manifest on Being There (1996) and reached its peak on A Ghost Is Born. Nothing here is as challenging as “Less Than You Think” or “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” but songs like “Sunloathe” and epic opener “Art of Almost” come at the listener at oblique angles, sporting unorthodox instrumentation and unsettling, complex rhythmic figures that beautifully complement Tweedy’s elliptical musings.
Even on the more straightforward tracks, the band sneaks in sonic details that are as easy to miss as they are to enjoy: the new wave sheen and studio handclaps of “Standing O,” for example, or the flitting synth lines that introduce the fantastic title track, where Tweedy kind of awkwardly threatens “to show you [his] whole love.” Elsewhere, the vintage “Capitol City” is a nifty little city mouse/country mouse communique that neatly toys with the paradoxical reality of an alt-country band coming out of Chicago, while “Rising Red Lung” is a very nice distillation of that signature country sound.
And finally, there is the devastatingly gorgeous “One Sunday Morning.” To say that this twelve-minute black hole is the single best thing the band has done since “A Ghost is Born,” or their most effective album closer to date, is quite true, but it doesn’t really do the song justice. Structurally, it bears a distant relation to “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” in the way it stretches out a simple A-B-A-B pattern to an imposing length, but in tone and emotional tenor it could not be further removed from “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”‘s relentless epileptic stupor. If the use of repetition in “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” was indebted to Krautrock, “One Sunday Morning” is a folk song the way they were written fifty years ago: in service of the story, without regard for radio runtimes.
“This is how I tell it / O’ but it’s long,” Tweedy sings, inviting us to sit down around the warm acoustic glow of this lovely tune. The endless refrain of the central melody, which is variously doubled on guitar, piano, vibraphone, and glockenspiel, makes the song feel distantly but intensely familiar, as if Tweedy had stepped into your memory and rewritten one of those childhood songs you could add verses to indefinitely as long as you threw in the chorus each time. I don’t need to retell Tweedy’s story, except to say that it explores a thematic link between a son and his dying father and the death and rebirth of Jesus in a way that is, at once, skeptically removed and intensely spiritual. And that the story culminates in a glorious coda whose closest analogue I can think of in guitar-based music is the heartstopping climax of “Marquee Moon,” except that this feels less like reaching the summit of a long climb than like descending into a tranquil valley after a lengthy pilgrimage. The only demerit of the song is that it outshines the rest of the album so brilliantly, but there’s something to be said for that, too. It means that finally, we can once again be excited about what Wilco might do next.