Throughout a career-long tendency for lineup and label changes, Chicago-based alt rock band, Wilco have released a wide variety of albums in terms of feel, approach and execution. And with their post-A.M catalog ranging from the highly experimental Being There to the surprisingly unthreatening Sky Blue Sky, it would be easy to expect their most recent full-length, The Whole Love to be either characteristically edgy or approachably bland. Surprisingly, this release is somehow neither.
Out of familiarity and confidence rather than compromise Wilco have managed to release a record that is at once rife with the experimentation of earlier releases and cohesively palatable. Featuring a track list dominated by effortless and subdued songs interrupted by the occasional attention-grabbing cathartic experiment, The Whole Love contains enough of the old Wilco’s knack for shaking things up to satisfy those bored stiff by the normalcy of the band’s mid-career releases while simultaneously standing as a more cohesive effort than even a ghost is born, successfully placing it on par with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
As silence is broken with the distorted sound of someone fumbling with a microphone on album-opener, “The Art of Almost,” the listener breathes a sigh of relief – or a groan of frustration – as it’s clear that Wilco have once again returned to the experimental leanings of their past. But once you endure the 7-minute-long saga of instrumental and vocal indulgence it also becomes clear that there’s a depth on this album to be appreciated.
Plodding, steel guitar-laced, “Black Moon” and bouncy narrative, “Capitol City” offer two vastly different incarnations of the band, yet neither breaks the overall tone or flow of the album. That artistic diversity devoid of unfavorable frenetic disorganization may be the greatest achievement of all. From the modern British pop influence of “Standing O” (wherein Patrick Sansone pays tribute to Ray Manzarek with an organ riff utterly evocative of The Doors’ own, “Light My Fire”) to the surreal and ethereal “Sunloathe,” the intra-album continuity is a masterful achievement by what finally sounds like a veteran band.
Interestingly, some have pointed to lyrical composition as a weak point on this project. However, rather than a case of shortcoming I would argue this a perfect example of listeners’ collective unjustified entitlement. Since the relative dwindle of the psychedelic movement, a myth has developed that everyone should be personally capable of understanding a song’s meaning simply by listening to the lyrics. Contributing writers of Wilco clearly disagree with this myth and for that I’m thankful. For a band with a career-long association with major record labels, this group has never been one to be told what to do. It’s cost them their contract with Warner and the occasional dollar here and there though their integrity and quest for personal, uninhibited expression has remained fully intact.
Contradiction and seemingly incoherent messages have been sighted as key culprits in this release’s lyrical malpractice, however, just because some don’t ‘get it’ doesn’t mean the lyrics don’t make sense. Did anyone really understand the majority of CSNY’s lyrics? And how often have analysts, linguists and potheads alike attempted to decode the more obscure of Hendrix’s catalog? My point is not that lyrics lack importance but rather that incoherent-bordering-on-mystical lyrics are no reason to detract from an album’s worth – and especially this album’s.
A commendable effort from seasoned and accomplished group of musicians, The Whole Love is clearly an indication of a stronger, more resolute Wilco. Secure in a tenacious lineup and finally on their own label, there’s nothing to keep this band from securing their already lofty position as one of the greatest bands of this generation.