It’s always a strange thing to wish someone were back on drugs. Jeff Tweedy wrote two of the most critically claimed albums of the 2000s—“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost is Born”—while under the influence of painkillers and depression. Then he got clean, released the hokey “Sky Blue Sky” and the irritatingly self-referential, though marginally improved “Wilco (The Album).” Wilco’s latest, “The Whole Love,” suggests a similar move towards retro-pop irrelevance and, worse, the oft-invoked genre “dad rock.” While this album, as with the last two, has several absolutely brilliant songs, it mainly furthers Wilco’s descent into irrelevant tastefulness.
The strangest thing about this record is its superficial similarities to Wilco’s third album, the brilliantly twisted “Summerteeth.” This album took classic ‘60s pop forms and incongruously adorned them with psychotic themes, impressionistic lyrics, and a crushing sense of depression. Where this reimagining of classic pop music made the old seem new, Wilco dabbles in the same forms on “The Whole Love,” only this time their aim is rote emulation rather than innovation. “Dawned On Me” continues pop music’s love affair with meaningless poetic contradictions—”Heart of coal / Heart of gold”—and the instrumentals consist of a basic chord structure played by mumbling, distorted guitars over an unimaginative drum beat. Songs like this, “Sunloathe,” and “Standing O” seem like pointless rehashings of old cultural forms.
Occasionally, though, Wilco strikes A.M. gold, as on “Born Alone.” Here the sanguine bass and small, tight drums lightly push Tweedy’s more imaginative lyrical performance. His first verse is provocative, if elliptical: “I have heard the wall and worry of the gospel / Ferry Faust it crossed a void / I have married broken spoke charging smoke wheels / Spit and swallowed opioid.” The quirky sunny quality of the verse shifts eloquently into the taut, climactic chorus guitar line. The title track’s rollicking organ arpeggios, acoustic guitar octaves, and light-footed guitar lines also make for a glorious, eminently listenable, carefree pop song. “Capitol City,” with its goofy Randy Newman jaunt and self-conscious winks of atmospheric noise, is a joy, but it’s little more than a small pop song, cautiously assembled as if the group were following instructions. A bit more than a minute into the song, a rustling of noise similar to the opening of “Wishful Thinking” floods the background before rapidly fading, only serving as a brusque reminder that Wilco’s artistic mission has shifted from innovative sonic craftsmanship and soulful emotional excavation to faithful, contented emulation.
Wilco’s best songs have always been deconstructed or blown-up folk songs—see “Poor Places” or “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”—and their new sonic identity allows them room for gracefully unadorned folk songs. While this freedom also permits irritating, corny filler like “Open Mind,” the album’s delicate 12-minute closer, “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” is one of their finest recordings to date. Tweedy introduces each of his perfect couplets with a devastatingly penetrating line that he follows with equally poetic exposition—“I fell in love with the burden / Holding me down”— and the band punctuates each verse with the melodic refrain, a piano and guitar riff that nears the elegant simplicity of “Ashes of American Flags.” As Tweedy sings, the instrumentals that often sound unfocused throughout the album meander in and out of musical representations of the lyrics—a piano trill evoking “I feel relief / I feel well,” for instance, and a set of ghostly parallel fifths cascading down like bells on Sunday morning.
The most concerning song on the album is “Art of Almost,” a seven-minute opener similar to the Krautrock “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” off “A Ghost is Born.” The occasional bursts of noise, constant pulse of synthesizer, and skittish drums seem like clear attempts at a Radiohead-esque tightly constructed freak-out. However, its experimental bursts, fuzzed out guitars and bass, and meticulous production are so excessively tasteful as to neuter the song. “Almost” replicates in miniature the entire album’s unspoken aesthetic of calculated risk—of artful almosts. Despite this, the record’s best tracks are so stellar as to maintain what might seem an otherwise unjustified faith in the group that gave us some of the best music of the new millennium.
—Staff writer Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.