It’s better to burn out than to fade away, but no one told that to Jeff Tweedy. Since the 2004 release of A Ghost is Born, which ended Wilco’s four-album streak of brilliance, Tweedy’s music has shifted more towards the kind of inoffensive, faceless, white-bread alternative that echoes loudly from the station wagon armadas of suburbia. Listening to Sky Blue Sky and Wilco was sort of like the equivalent of watching a TBS sitcom marathon – it had bright colors, you enjoyed it a little but you came away feeling empty and questioning your place in the universe. They were perfect albums for Volkswagen commercials. And, fittingly, they were used in them. Fortunately, it’s immediately clear that The Whole Love, Wilco’s most recent album released on Sept. 27, 2011, breaks the trend of apathy-inducing albums.
“The Art of Almost,” the album’s seven-plus-minute opener, doesn’t arrive as a fully formed thought, but rather stumbles into its uneasy groove, propelled by a syncopated drumbeat under fuzzy distortion. It’s the antithesis of the comfortable zone established in the last two albums, and it ranks among the most ambitious (and un-Wilco-y) of Wilco’s album openers. When Tweedy finally enters the song, he’s accompanied by occasional blasts of noise in the chorus. It’s as if Wilco began the album with the song specifically as a rebuttal to fans who (rightfully) accused them of mellowing with age – “The Art of Almost” dares listeners to call Wilco dad-rock again. To be fair, “standard” Wilco fare is easy to come by in The Whole Love. But even on consecutive tracks “Born Alone” and “Open Mind,” which offer straightforward alt-country, Wilco seems uninhibited, relaxed and willing to showcase a little experimentation. Even the lead single, “I Might,” which one could reasonably assume would be a straightforward song, boasts a winding organ line that seems more at home in classic rock than in alt-country.
The album’s closer, however, is where the album truly comes to a quiet climax. On the 12-plus-minute “One Sunday Morning,” Tweedy whispers the thoughts of a son on the passing of his father. It’s the album’s most bare, contemplative moment, a monologue set over a shuffling drumbeat with a sporadic piano line floating in and out of consciousness. It’s an interesting, peculiar way to end The Whole Love – opposite the loud, disjointed opener, the album closer is relaxed, longing and wistful. Compared to previous Wilco songs that break the 10-minute barrier, “One Sunday Morning” is less sonically experimental and finds more home in repetition than in pushing boundaries. But in an album scattered with disconnected ideas, “One Sunday Morning”’s simple beauty is as natural as anything else.
So is The Whole Love Wilco’s long-awaited return to form? The answer is a little complicated. Though it hardens the softened edges of Sky Blue Sky and Wilco and moves past the boundaries established by those two, it doesn’t equal the greatness of Wilco’s output from 1997-2004. Lacking the grandiose, unified, modern vision of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the bare emotionalism of A Ghost is Born, The Whole Love simply sounds like a fun album by a band that is loosening up again. It’s easier to view The Whole Love as a “smaller” album than any of Wilco’s classic outputs, implying that it’s a little less interesting. However, its ambition and diversity unite a seemingly haphazardly written album, making The Whole Love interesting and entertaining in its own right. And for Wilco fans, who have seen the band move backwards in the last seven years, it’s a welcome step in the right direction.