When it comes to delivering the goods, we prefer our songwriters miserable, drunk, off the rails, imbalanced. If that sounds harsh, consider Wilco as evidence. The Chicago band's most lauded works (2002's wounded and fractured 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', 2004's pain-blasted noise fest 'A Ghost Is Born') were produced in trying circumstances.
Since then, songwriter Jeff Tweedy's kicked his painkiller addiction and the previously conflict-prone band's eased into its current six-piece line-up, by all accounts becoming a happy workplace in the process. Which is obviously excellent news for everyone concerned, but something precious appears to have vanished as a newfound positivity's taken the place of the uneasy gloom. The odd moment of brilliance aside, recent albums (2007's soft rock-friendly 'Sky Blue Sky', 2009's 'Wilco') have been underwhelming: not enough dramatic tension and rulebook-shredding unpredictability to do justice to the explosive dynamic range the band demonstrate on stage, one too many jolly throwaway to match the bittersweet of peaks of 1996's similarly straightforward alt. country landmark 'Being There'.
As such, 'The Art of Almost' - the first track on Wilco's eight album - comes as a surprise, a wake-up call and a huge relief. A pulsating epic riding on a too-funky-in-here bass line, it's a totem to sustained intensity, six minutes of richly nuanced restraint exploding into a brief cluster of spiky guitar skronk. The rest might initially struggle to match these fireworks, but 'The Whole Love' wears its complexities and ambiguities on a sly. Sentiments as stark as "I was born to die alone" are married to triumphant, hard-riffing power-pop ('Born Alone') and hazy psych-balladry ('Sunloathe').
Half-concealed orchestrations lurk inside seemingly plain and simple tracks, the band suddenly changing course and with it the mood of songs such as the sunny 'Dawned On Me' for a few fleeting bars of pure magic. But it's not just about hidden depths and multi-layered arrangements. More often than ever since the mid 90's, 'The Whole Love' finds Wilco willing to shed all extra trimmings and allow the songs to bask in the spotlight. 'Black Moon' and 'Open Mind' revisit pedal steel-touched terrain of Americana classicism with striking results, whilst 'One Sunday Morning' explores the feelings and memories evoked by the death of a father for 12 stunning minutes of twilit country-folk, the band demonstrating restraint worthy of Lambchop in employing each musician sparingly for maximum impact.
"Come listen to this," Tweedy half-whispers amidst shadowy rumbling of 'Rising Red Lung'. You really should heed his advice. A near-perfect union between experimental leanings and song-driven directness, ‘The Whole Love’ proves the band's learned how to thrill in a healthily mature way, with not a personal or professional disaster in sight.