Wilco's latest album, Sky Blue Sky (due out May 15), so far appears to be polarizing fans and critics alike; people either love or loathe the group's meandering, rootsy direction. In the spirit of dialogue, here are two takes on Sky from two longtime fans—one who's enthusiastic and one who's, well, not so much. (Judge for yourself when the All Good Cafe hosts a midnight listening party Tuesday, May 15.)
If Wilco put together a greatest-hits album, it would probably only contain two or three songs from Sky Blue Sky—and while that may sound like a criticism, it's actually more a testament to the band's already-impressive body of work. Whereas 2004's A Ghost Is Born was a tad unfocused and jam-heavy, Sky is far more song-oriented and less krautrock-influenced than it is informed by legendary folk acts such as the Band.
However, despite the album's laid-back feel, it's still unquestionably a Wilco record. "Impossible Germany" is reminiscent of "Jesus, Etc." from 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, save for a jaw-dropping jazz-fusion guitar solo courtesy of recent addition Nels Cline; "What Light" is a Dylan-influenced, acoustic-driven number that recalls Wilco's early material (or even Uncle Tupelo's final recordings); and the stripped-down "Please Be Patient With Me" displays a side of frontman Jeff Tweedy that's so vulnerable the song will break your heart as fast as it'll embed itself in your brain.
Lyrically, Sky Blue Sky is far less cryptic than the band's last effort—and while there are no ghosts being born, songs such as "Hate It Here" manage to take a familiar theme (getting over a breakup) and put it in a fresh new context. Come to think of it, that last statement is what made most of us love Wilco in the first place. —Jonah Bayer
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot opens with a couplet of such swaggering beauty that I fall in love again every time I hear it: "I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue." The beginning of Foxtrot's follow-up, A Ghost Is Born, isn't quite so evocative, but it grounds that album's emotional and psychological torment in specific detail: "When I sat down on the bed next to you/You started to cry."
Here are the first lines of Wilco's sixth studio album, Sky Blue Sky: "Maybe the sun will shine today/The clouds will blow away/Maybe I won't feel so afraid"—which is practically Leonard Cohenesque compared to the next verse: "Maybe you still love me/Maybe you don't/Either you will or you won't."
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On Sky Blue Sky, Jeff Tweedy trades poetry for banality, introspection for navel-gazing. The sighing narrators of these songs yearn for someone or something, yet never with any urgency—and even when they get what they're after, they aren't thrilled or just plain happy so much as content. Consider the final lines of "Impossible Germany": "Nothing more important than to know/Someone's listening/Now I know/You'll be listening."
Or consider the Big Bird pabulum of "What Light," whose everyone-is-special ethos represents the lack of artistic ambition that bedevils the entire album: "If you feel like singing a song/And you want other people to sing along/Just sing what you feel/Don't let anyone say it's wrong."
The band ambles along behind Tweedy, giving a competent performance—the worst insult I can imagine for these guys. Nels Cline unleashes a few wicked solos, but these don't feel organic to the songs; instead, it just seems like Tweedy pointed to him at that moment. And poor Glenn Kotche doesn't even get a good groove going until the last minute of the second-to-last song.
Fans turned off by the studio experimentation and occasional self-indulgence of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born may welcome the less obtuse lyrics and utterly pleasant melodies. And after hashing out his personal issues on those two albums, it's understandable why Tweedy may want to step back from the precipice. Sometimes, when you're back in your old neighborhood, the cigarettes really do taste so good. Sometimes, though, they just taste like nasty-ass cancer sticks. —Ian Froeb