You can't buy the kind of publicity Wilco received last year, when Reprise declined to release the newly completed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (see "Sunken Treasure," September 20, 2001). Blocked from direct access to the mass market, Jeff Tweedy and company schlepped the whole album over to Wilco's Web site (www.wilcoworld.net), where it sat for a number of weeks. And for once, the ballyhooed audio-download phenomenon actually accomplished what it was supposed to do: It circumvented narrow administrative thinking and allowed a band to get its music--as opposed to its "product"--into the hands of the people who wanted it, right-the-hell-now immediately. For a brief moment, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the most widely available legal bootleg in the free world.
And then, just as suddenly, it went away, at which point Yankee Hotel Foxtrot ceased to be an album, and became a Text. Tweedy, in particular--a fan's fan if there ever was one--must have been amused as he watched the record take on near-mythic dimensions throughout the following months. Like Smile (with which it was often rather inscrutably compared), Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was purported to push the boundaries not only of the band that produced it, but of the field of pop music in general. Like Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers, the music was supposed to deconstruct itself over the course of the album, a calculated decay essential to its art. Rumors of internal tension abounded; founding member Jay Bennett walked during the recording. And there was the strange matter of the album's reported sonic inspiration, The Conet Project--a multidisc collection of intercepted short-wave radio broadcasts that may or may not be related to espionage activity.
Clearly, none of this material was going to end up on Now That's What I Call Music Vol. MCMLXII. So by this point, when the album receives its honest-to-God release on Nonesuch, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot arrives in many corners with the force of the Second Coming. The hype may obscure the album's merit for a time. But the hype won't last. And Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is not only Wilco's best album to date, it's one of the best albums anyone has released in recent memory.
Months ago, in the immediate context of 9/11, the predominant element of the album seemed to be its sheer noise, the crackling interference and low hum that runs throughout its 51 minutes and occasionally devours the music. When Tweedy sings, "I assassin down the avenue/I'm hiding out in the big city blinking/What was I thinking when I let go of you," the instrumentation stutters in and out beneath him--drums kick in for a single measure, then go silent for the remainder of the verse--and you can fairly hear the singer groping for a vocabulary that will allow him to describe his nervous movements. A child's ghostly voice, coolly repeating the phonetic letters "Yankee...hotel...foxtrot..." laces through the squalling end of "Poor Places" like an ancient, unearthed curse. And occasionally, as on "Jesus, Etc.," Tweedy delivers lines like "Tall buildings shake/Voices are scared/Singing sad sad songs," which are, in hindsight, simply a little too prescient to hear comfortably.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is packed with intricate touches like these, which become apparent only after repeated listenings. From an audiophile's standpoint, it is the most layered of Wilco's albums--it's a soundscape, properly speaking--and the audio mix, courtesy of Jim O'Rourke (who's also mixed for Superchunk, Tortoise and Sonic Youth), contributes immeasurably to its power. But for all its significant production ambiance, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is, most important, an album of songs that are very nearly perfect in their conception and execution. The haunting centerpiece "Ashes of American Flags" finds Tweedy admitting that "my lies are always wishes"; on "I'm the Man Who Loves You," volunteering that, "All I can be is a busy sea/Of spinning wheels and hands that feel/For stone to throw, and feet that run." A sparseness of language permeates the album--and grammatically, it's a mess--but hearing those broken words wedded to this fragmented music, you realize these things couldn't be said any other way.
It only gets more rewarding the longer one listens; the sound of creative people doing something exactly as they'd intended is, as always, a remarkable thing to hear. Take it as you will--the radio as metaphor for crossed romantic signals, receiving spectral transmissions from all our broken hearts--but however you take it, be assured that remarkable things are happening here. Or, like the man said: Hear it again, for the first time.
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