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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Length: 11 tracks
Similar to Neil Young’s Are You Passionate, it was in fear and trepidation that I opened the CD drawer to insert Wilco’s long awaited follow up to their pop splendid Summerteeth. Well it had been seemingly years since Reprise refused to release it; how bad could it have been? Friends had said it was so drugged up that it was spaced out. Then there were Radiohead references in reviews. Come on!
The first 65 seconds didn’t relieve the apprehension, with its vibraphones, drones, and skeletal bare bones of noises but then Tweedy’s rough hue of a voice puts on flesh and muscle as a song is sung over the seemingly random soundtrack and we have something that is getting more beautiful by the second. It is almost like Jackson Pollock with a Jack Yeats’ painting over the top only better because you can obviously hear both at once. Tweedy has rarely sounded so close and intimate and vulnerable and emotive and all fear is gone and awe and wonder rush in to fill the void. Someone in Reprise needs a darn good thrashing.
Actually there is less Pollock like splatter in many of the other tracks and though "Kamera" is maybe too dirge like, songs like "Jesus Etc." or "Heavy Metal Drummer' are as catchy as anything on Summerteeth. Yes, there are quirky drum beats and shifty rhythms as well as random blares and blasts and booms but these effects never become a means to an end and enhance rather than distract from the songs that prove Tweedy to be as pioneering a songwriter as America has these days. "Poor Places" probably breaks down into the greatest crescendo of chaos but in the radio interference becomes the title of the album.
The album is also much more interesting lyrically. In the politics of love, Tweedy shows poetic ingenuity that never hides his heart-baring commitment, depth and a vulnerable honesty that rises above the triteness with which such an important issue to humans can be dealt with. On "War and War" and "Jesus Etc" you are left wondering if there were rewrites post September 11 when Wilco went out on a tour that they hoped would give their rapid little community of fans something almost spiritual to hang on to. As these songs are declaring war on war and observing “tall buildings shake/voices escape singing sad sad songs” they shift between prophetic in their foretelling or prophetic in their forth telling. Either way they bring a spiritual edge to Wilco that I for one have been unaware of. Tweedy even nods his hat in the direction of Christ as he paraphrases a Scriptural quotation as the punch line to most of what is in the 11 song sermon here “”you have to learn how to die/if you wanna, wanna be alive.”
After their debut had taken its cue from the final Uncle Tupelo album, Being There had watched them go down a Rolling Stones alley like Exiles on Main Street, Summerteeth had watched them pursue The Beatles train out of their alt. Country tag that Tweedy always hated and the two Woody Guthrie collaborations with Billy Bragg had seen them involved with an American folk legend. Taking all of that on board Tweedy seems to be finding the fulfilment of his dreams. In a recent Q magazine he says “If you spend your life trying to make something beautiful you should give it a chance.” We should be thankful that they stood their ground and refused to back down. Maybe he has fulfilled his life’s ambition, because beautiful this is.
Steve Stockman 5/5/2002