The Whole Love Wilco (dBpm/Anti-)
Do you know where R.E.M. got the name for its breakout 1992 album Automatic for the People? It was the catchphrase of a restaurant owner in Athens, Ga., who aimed to please: You want it, you got it, "automatic for the people."
Have you ever been to the Wilco-themed sandwich shop in Toronto, Sky Blue Sky? The menu items are prepared fresh and meticulously, no substitutions or even minor alterations, please. They make what they make, figuring you'll like it.
R.E.M, the jangly Georgia alt-rockers, just broke up after 31 years. They were a major-label act who did their best to stay indie, selling a heck of a lot of records along the way. My favourite was 1994's Monster, an abrupt stylistic change, what with its distortion, sonic bluster and general bigness. Some fans didn't cotton to it.
Wilco – whose sole original members are singer and chief songwriter Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt – zigs and zags more than R.E.M ever did, rankling its followers with music that veers from alt-country to more experimental fare.
Which brings us to The Whole Love, Wilco's latest album and the first on its own label. The 56-minute disc begins with an aberration, Art of Almost, which starts moodily with beats, static and an onrushing cloud of synths. It sounds like something out of England; Kasabian maybe.
When the cloud breaks, Tweedy steps forward into a sonic clearing: "No, I froze, / I can't be so, / Far away from my wasteland …"
To some Wilco fans, the almost industrial sounds, foreboding ambience and wild outro of Art of the Almost will be disorientating; others will revel in the boundary-pushing, though the rest of the album is nowhere near a departure.
I Might has an unstoppably bouncy Motown bass, juicy keyboards, ornamental glockenspiel, sweet-pop backing vocals and abrasive new-wave guitar. Sunloathe, solo John Lennon in a shade of grey, finds Tweedy singing about doubt and self-hating.
Finally we get to Dawned on Me, the first Wilco-y track, upbeat and tuneful with Stirratt's prominent bass again – it's a force on this fine, sonically pleasing and far-ranging record – and whistling from Tweedy. Black Moon is a darkly cast, finger-picked love song, with a touch of Mellotron. Capital City is a ditty like the late-career Beatles did. Standing O, a straightforward rocker, disappoints.
Though I can't be sure what constitutes a quintessential Wilco album, The Whole Love might be it. Tweedy admires Woody Guthrie, Elvis Costello and The White Album, and he has a jazz-leaning guitarist on his team in Nels Cline. As he sings on one sweet and atmospheric ballad: "I would love to be the one to open up your mind."
Not sure why R.E.M. broke up, but I think I can guess why Wilco endures: They make music for themselves, hoping but not depending on others to listen. The Whole Love ends with One Sunday Morning, a gorgeous comedown, 12 minutes long. Tweedy has said it's the kind of song he'd like to fall asleep to. Me, I find that the pitter-patter of the drum brushes keeps me awake.
But it's his song, not mine. Wilco's not trying to break anyone's heart. Rather, they're trying to fill up their own. For the best ones, that's automatic, people.
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