After starting out as a band which emphasized the songs, Wilco famously reinvented itself as a group that was all about the sound, resulting in the extraordinary trio of albums starting with the Pet Sounds-like Summerteeth (1999) and continuing with the more avant-garde and noisy Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) and A Ghost Is Born (2004).
Then, to the mild disappointment of some, as Jeff Tweedy and the most stable lineup of the band’s career grew ever more comfortable and successful, we got a retrenchment, with less focus on sonic invention and something of a return to singer-songwriter mode. This was fine, on the best moments of Sky Blue Sky (2007) and Wilco (The Album) (2009). But it was kinda snoozy, predictable, and comfortably middle-aged at others.
Now, with its eighth studio album and the first release for its own independent label, the Chicago sextet tries to split the difference between the earlier extremes, as exemplified by the two epics that open and close the disc. With drummer Glenn Kotche hammering out an insistent groove and digital gurgles, bleeps, and burps creating an unsettling urban-chaos soundscape, Tweedy confesses, “I can’t be so far away from my wasteland.” Sure enough, the track unfolds from there in an ominous and thrilling way that recalls being back amid the post-9/11 rubble and the art-rock of the band’s most inventive era.
In stark but satisfying contrast, the album closes with the absolutely gorgeous “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” instantly one of the most melodic and intimate songs Tweedy ever has written. Musing about the death of his father, among many other (sometimes inscrutable) things, verse after verse spills forth for more than 12 minutes, propelled by John Stirratt’s tuneful, undulating bass and Kotche’s brushed snare drum rolls. A small orchestra’s worth of other instruments come and go, emphasizing stray vocal lines or offering subtle variations of the hook at the heart of the tune. Meanwhile, that phrase itself, picked out on an acoustic guitar, repeats about a hundred times—and it’s so strong, you’re eager to hear it a hundred times more as soon the track finally ends.
Plenty just as good comes in between, much of it finding Tweedy finally letting hell-raising guitarist Nels Cline off the tether that’s inexplicably restrained him for the last two discs (the brief but potent six-string explosions on “Born Alone” and the rollicking “Standing O” are especially striking), and some of it indicating that the boss is no longer afraid of comparisons to the Jay Bennett/“Summerteeth” days and is now more willing to let power-pop mavens Stirratt and Pat Sansone bring a bit of the Beach Boys back (witness the atmospheric and beautiful “Sunloathe” and “Black Moon”).
Then there’s the dreadfully hoakey speakeasy jive of “Capitol City,” which indicates that, for all his recent talk about how Wilco never has operated as a more democratic band of equals, some of those equals still seem afraid to tell Tweedy that some of his ideas suck. Really, boys: All five of you thought this turkey deserved a place on the finished album?
Ah, well: That’s the only misstep, and, at four minutes, it’s a lot easier to forgive than “Less Than You Think,” the pointless sound collage that retains the dubious honor of being the band’s worst waste of our time ever. As for the rest of The Whole Love, there’s a whole lot to love indeed.
On the four-star scale: 3.5 STARS