REVIEW: Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Nonesuch, 2002]
Three words? A post-pop masterpiece.
Wilco, lauded by Billy Bragg, dismissed by country-shunners, touted as torch-bearers for modern Americana, have turned in a disc that is a subtle alt.pop masterpiece, a quietly evocative collection of eleven expansive tunes.
True, they finished it a year ago. True, their label (Warner Bros) thought it would be neither a critical nor commercial succes. But Warner Bros was wrong - and even they seem to have recognized that: after WB dumped Wilco, a bidding war ensued over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The winner? Nonesuch, a Warner Bros subsidiary.
But by now you all know the album's history. More important is the music contained therein; and the music, my friends, is very good indeed.
I never really bought into Wilco's rugged, Rusty-style alt.country. Pleasant - sure; energetic - definitely; inspired? - I don't think so. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot turns these preconceived notions on their heads, substituting xylophone for pedal-steel, post-rock atmospherics for back-porch intimacy. These are pop songs - the sing-along jangle rises to the fore in "Kamera" or "Heavy Metal Drummer" - but they're stretched-out, impressionist pop-songs. Wilco uses the silences between notes, it fills the empty corners with ambient whispers and whirrs. "I am trying to break your heart" opens the disc - warm with piano and flat, affectionate percussion - but as much as you keep expecting things to speed up, to kick into high-gear, they don't. The shuffle remains steady, the wood-block rattle and keyboard-tinkle takes its time, massages the melody. The words are important, the harmonics meaningful - so why rush? This isn't the moody 'milk it for all its worth' practiced by Low and Mogwai (at their worst), this is the careful arrangement of talented songwriters, the steady ear of Jim O'Rourke, the gradual blooming of a music composition.
Of course Wilco hasn't created a sleepy album. Even within the dark-blanket ambience of "Radio Cure", the insistent melody tugs on the listener like fishing-line. Tubular bells work "Brazil" magic on the chorus, tantalizing with fragments of melodic epiphany. The lyrics are image-heavy magic: "Picking apples for the kings and queens of things I've never seen..." "War on War" has a more old-fashioned Wilco feel - sing-song over acoustic strumming - but even here there are traces of something more; fairy tinkling that licks at the back of the tune. "Jesus, Etc." brings in a violin, but it's a summery, Wild Colonials violin, not a bluegrass call-back.
"Heavy Metal Drummer" is a whole-hog pop anthem; brisk, climbing drums tapdance under Jeff Tweedy's crooked-smile singing. Squirks and squiggles of sound rise and fall, once or twice breaking into a synth breakdown. Cute, high-pitched "oohs" and "yeahs" recall the British Invasion in both style and effect, and, well, the chorus gets more than stuck in your head: it moves in, unpacks, and adds a swimming pool in the back.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has got it all - guitar bragging for "I'm the Man Who Loves You", spacey jangling on "Pot Kettle Black", the earnest, epic "Poor Places", an echoing farewell on "Reservations". It's a great album for the slow-blossoming summer, but it's also likely an album for the ages: poetic and near-perfect, easily understood and consistently, superbly surprising.