Monday, May 21, 2007

Sky Blue Sky by Wilco

There are a lot of things Wilco, and, by extension, frontman Jeff Tweedy, can be accused of; conforming to expectations is most certainly not one of them. That's why it comes as a surprise that Sky Blue Sky has been met with such contempt from some corners of the music press.
When alt. country was burgeoning, mainly because of Tweedy's early work with Uncle Tupelo, Being There came as a big, eclectic bolt from the Rock 'n' Roll blue.
Then, some smoothly produced pop in Summerteeth, which morphed into the white-noise/pop masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. When A Ghost is Born came along, you'd think people had cottoned on to the fact that while Wilco records are never quite what you'd expect, there's always a natural progression from one to another. So, while Sky Blue Sky, on the surface appears to be a quantum leap back in time for Wilco, a band that has unquestionably fought against its Daddy-rock leanings for over a decade, closer inspection reveals much more in common with its predecessors, and many tracks carry a clear connection to the less experimental moments on Ghost.

An important point to note is that the creative and artistic success of Sky Blue Sky should not be judged exclusively on its progressiveness (or lack thereof), as the band's experimental nature was not something they ever expressed an interest in maintaining in the long term. Unfortunately, that is most likely exactly what it will be judged on, and that is a shame. Because even though this may be Wilco's most clean, crisp and uncomplicated recording to date, it is also possibly the one that takes the longest to make its mark.

Irrespective of the intent of the band (or its fans), this is a collection of twelve really beautiful, well crafted songs. And that is what Wilco have always done better than anyone. In fact, the record opens with one the band's most beautiful recordings to date, in 'Either Way', a delightful 70s mid-tempo number which is a world apart from the angst-ridden fuzz of previous recordings, almost certainly a statement of intent from Tweedy regarding his emergence from the haze of painkiller addiction, as no doubt is the absolutely spotless production. And when newly recruited guitarist Nels Cline's solo kicks in midway, you just have to sit back and let it all wash over you, sappy strings and all, because it's a great song.

Cline's free jazz background comes screaming to the fore when the band let him loose on tracks like 'Impossible Germany', and when Wilco decide to rock out, they do so with gusto (at least, as much gusto as 6 well-to-do gents pushing 40 can muster), as on 'Please be Patient With Me' and 'Hate it Here'.
Not many bands in the world could flirt with Eagles-esque MOR rock and not come off looking impossibly twee and camp. It is testament to the songwriting chops of Tweedy et al. that Sky Blue Sky comes off as a beautiful, and surprisingly memorable excursion into middle-aged contentment. Wake up on a clear Sunday morning, put this CD on, close your eyes and enjoy it for what it is. Don't expect anything but quality.

4 stars

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