Wilco strips back with 'Sky Blue Sky'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK editor
A little while after the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a few years ago, Wilco announced that anyone who had bought the CD would have access to download a brand-new EP, More Like The Moon, from their Web site. The 6 tracks were all over the place but all very cool, including an alternate version of “Camera” and the plaintive “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard.” The majority of the EP hinted at their next move, with studio experimentation creating the bed for most of the songs.
But one song stood out a bit from the rest. The closing title track was a 6-minute meditation, longing and sorrowful. It was Jeff Tweedy at his best, in a way — the song never overstated itself, but worked to create a sublime atmosphere with just a subtle organ refrain as it’s foundation.
They moved with the experimental edge on 2005’s A Ghost Is Born, but they’ve returned to the less-is-more approach here in 2007 with Sky Blue Sky.
Opening with “Either Way,” a track that would’ve made Van Morrison or the Band happy in the early 70s, Wilco makes an opening statement that tells the listener to ease back and let this record wash over them. All over this record, the spaces where the walls of noise and drones of synthesizers created a near-sinister mood on A Ghost Is Born are replaced by a stripped-back aesthetic. Instead of signal boxes, a clean lead from guitarist Nels Cline is there to break the atmosphere. Instead of the dive-bomb of a loop to punctuate the lyrics, there is now just a stated piano line to keep the ball rolling.
That’s not to say that any of this is better than anything they’ve done, however. It’s merely different. The daring experimentation of A Ghost Is Born is, honestly, missed here. With that record, following the transcendent Foxtrot, Wilco were functioning as one of the most daring bands of our time, leaving their country-rock roots in the wake for Sonic Youth-like invention.
But while the feedback is gone, a new kind of experimentation has taken its place ⎯ the search for the one perfect note. Every musician tackles this task at some point, to varying success, and here, Jeff Tweedy’s crew takes their try at it. By peeling back all but the most essential layers, Wilco attempt to define their songs by the songs themselves. Their melodies, always a strong suit, are forced to shine here, and shine they do. On “What Light,” for example, vocal harmonies and Nels Cline’s slide guitar push the song through to the finish line, aided by an acoustic guitar and Glen Kotche’s accented drum work.
The lyrics are, again, a mystery that makes Wilco all the more appealing. Tweedy has yet to paint himself into a corner with his words, and he’s as understated and abstract as ever on Sky Blue Sky. Take a passage from “You Are My Face,” a powerful little ditty if there ever was one. Emotive, yes, but the shadows of the words are what give them power:
“I am looking forward
Toward the shadows tracing bones
Our faces stitched and sewing
Our houses hemmed into homes
Trying to be thankful
Our stories fit into phones
And our voices lift so easily
A gift given accidentally
When we’re not sure
We’re not alone”
There is also a maturity here that has been in the works through their career. On “Walken,” a bouncy tune transforms into an Abbey Road-like jam, with the guitar punctuated by McCartney basslines and Ringo skin smacking. “Hate it Here” has the feel of Moondance-era Van, with the humorously sad tale of a man longing for his lost love. And “On And On And On” keeps the Beatles-meets-Motown feel alive, with a twist of Woody Guthrie squirted over the top for good measure.
The most impressive thing about Sky Blue Sky is how well the band has grown as communicators through the years, even with lyrics as dense and obscure as Tweedy’s. Wilco is a band that can stop on a dime now, ready to pull back or blast forward when needed, and always in moderation. There’s definite feeling in every song, and the sounds roll over the listener with grace. They overdo nothing, they never overstay their welcome and they know how much is just enough.
They have never made a record quite like this one. If it’s missing the sonic euphoria of A Ghost Is Born, it makes up for it with its honesty and simplicity, even when it’s not so simple.