Rejoice: Wilco have parted ways with the smooth soft rock that lingered over least distinguished parts of 2007’s ‘Sky Blue Sky’ like a stultifying sedative. ‘Wilco (The Album)’ is a livelier, spikier beast than its mellowed-out predecessor, with many delights true believers can refer to when justifying the Chicago outfit’s lofty position as a genuine Great American Rock Band, an outfit who at their best combine brains, passion and an unashamed belief in rocking out with ease unseen this side of Radiohead.
Naming the platter after the band makes sense. Rather than a full-on return to the Chicago outfit’s early 00’s experimental phase, as indicated by songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s early pronouncements, Wilco’s seventh studio album is greatest hits trawl through the band’s past personae. From the beers-aloft Stones-isms and sparse balladry of 1996’s alt. country landmark ‘Being There’ and expansively arranged power-pop of 1999’s ‘Summer Teeth’ (the Velvets chug of the self-titled opener) to challenging cuts infused with the abstract, fractured approaches that earned Wilco their current peerless reputation, if you’ve heard and enjoyed any Wilco album in the past you’re bound to find a lot to like here. Elsewhere, the lovely Leslie Feist duet ‘You and I’ and super-charged, hook-laden beauty of ‘One Wing’ unveil Wilco as would-be hitmakers, creators of effortlessly infectious tunes destined to be embraced by packed arenas in search of something substantial to holler along to.
Yet it’s hard to shake off the suspicion that, once the initial rush of sparkling ideas and killer tunes is done with, Wilco are a tad too keen to ease into a musical equivalent of swinging in a hammock. The latter half of the album drifts by, always pleasant, often compelling but not quite bristly enough to demand undivided attention. Being in the vicinity of the likes of ‘Bull Black Nova’ – an electrifyingly intense gallop peppered with stinging guitar duels easily equal to the explosive dynamics explored on 2005’s stunning live double ‘Kicking Television’ - only makes the lack of fireworks and sharp edges more glaring.
It’s almost as if finally securing a stable, superb line-up after years of inter-band friction, albeit obviously excellent news on personal and professional levels, has stifled Tweedy’s urge to experiment and push boundaries, backing the unfortunate theory that chirpiness can never hope to match misery when it comes to fertile breeding grounds for truly remarkable music. Following ‘Wilco (The Album)’ and ‘Wilco (The Song)’, maybe that’s Wilco (The Dilemma): how to tap into the tension and turmoil that fired up the restless innovation of 2001’s ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ and ‘A Ghost is Born’ (2003) without a side order of doom and gloom.