Wilco’s latest album Cruel Country was released about 2 months ago now, and I finally feel I’ve listened to it closely enough write about it. I took my time because my relationship with Wilco is a long one, at times bordering on obsession, and I didn’t want to jump into writing without truly absorbing the lengthy, 21-track double album. On top of that, I have a 16-month-old son, and my late nights of listening to music have, sadly, evolved into the falling-on-the-sleep-at-nine stereotype of a person in their late thirties. But since we’re talking about Wilco – a band now played on classic rock radio – I suspect I’m not the only fan with this problem.
My journey with this band began when I was a much younger man. I first connected with Wilco’s music on a road trip to Memphis from my home in rural Maryland during the summer after I graduated high school in 2003. My friend and traveling companion, Clay, put Wilco’s debut album AM (which at this point was nearly 8 years old) in heavy rotation on my car’s CD player along with Johnny Cash’s American series, Lucero’s then-newly released That Much Further West and records from other classic country artists like Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, and David Allan Coe.
AM is often called a country album, but it was undoubtedly the least country record we listened to on that road trip. It’s a western-sounding breakup album written to one’s own past, and an album about letting go. During that transitional summer in my young life, it hit hard. The songs were simple – often made up of a few repeating chord changes – but sonically and lyrically, it fell right into place in the rolling Tennesse landscape.
But after the road trip, it took a few years for me to rediscover Wilco. Then, one day in 2005, after experiencing my first breakup, I popped a home-burned copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot someone had given me into my car’s CD player and immediately found myself assassining down the avenue, speeding away from the apartment of a girl who – I’m pretty sure at least – was trying to break my heart. “I always thought that if I held you tightly,” Tweedy sings, “You would love me like you did back then.”
For the next year or two after that moment, Wilco was pretty much the only music I listened to. Every album. Every song. Every lyric. It was a time in my life that I would define by numbness, and in the early 2000s, no one was writing numbness like Jeff Tweedy. “Phone my family, tell them I’m lost on the sidewalk,” he sings in “Kamera.” Right on.
When I started learning the guitar the following year, it the fact that many of my favorite Wilco songs were easy to play helped cement my connection to the band. After just a few months of practicing chord changes on my acoustic guitar, I could sloppily bang out songs like “War on War,” “Handshake Drugs,” and “Box Full of Letters” and learn how to craft songs from them as I did. They were simple, and they convinced me that simple is how a song should be. And it may be that conviction that gradually, throughout a few of their subsequent albums, eased my obsession with the band.
It’s not that I don’t like the 4 records Wilco released in the decade beginning in 2011. These albums, The Whole Love, Star Wars, Schmilco, and Ode to Joy, are undoubtedly some of the band’s most impressive, and ones in which their world-class lineup of musicians really struts their stuff. But as an amateur musician and singer-songwriter, I wouldn’t know where to begin playing a song like “Quiet Amplifer,” “Art of Almost,” or “Random Name Generator.” It was their simplicity that caused me to fall in love with Wilco, and as their music became more complex, I found it harder to connect with.
So when I heard Wilco was returning to country music, I had uncertain expectations. Would it be a country-like album like AM from 1995, full of simple songs anyone could strum along to? I had high hopes.
Cruel Country isn’t exactly that. In fact, I’d argue that at times it sounds more like 2004’s A Ghost is Born than AM. From the opening moments of the opening track, “I Am My Mother,” we waltz into a sound that persists throughout most of the record. Twanging guitars, a piano that rides high in the mix, tempered percussion, and a Tweedy who sings softly and reflectively. It’s a beautiful-sounding album, and after 2 months of listening, I can confidently say that I like it – though I still think I’ll need some more time to really get it.
Among the songs that stand out to me are “Hints,” which I noticed rolls by the listener at approximate the tempo of my car passing utility poles on the highway. I was especially delighted by the line “And ever since Heaven sends us sacraments with subtle hints,” which Tweedy packs impressively with rhymes on top of rhymes.
Another one that pops to me is Tonight’s the Day. There’s this piano thing they do in the refrain line, and transition out of it – it’s a bit crazy but lovely when you hear it.
But my favorite song on the record is track 4, called “Ambulance.” It’s a finger-picked folk song that sounds like it might have been torn from the pages of Woody Guthrie’s unfinished Mermaid Avenue material. It conjures images traveling salesmen, the smiling devil, and of a priest pissing his pants. It’s the most sparsely produced track on the album and has the vibe of a song one might play while sitting on a couch after the crowd has thinned out a house party. And that is one of the highest compliments I can give a folk song.
If Cruel Country has one shortcoming, it’s that it generally lacks an earworm. There’s not a song on the album that I can’t get out of my head, and that’s a quality I miss from Wilco’s earlier years when songs like “Forget the Flowers” or “Heavy Metal Drummer” lived rent-free in my head for days. “Tired of Taking It Out On You” and “Falling Apart (Right Now)” might be the catchiest on the record, but in the realm of acoustic-pop songs, they’re not – say – “American Pie.”
I like this record so much that I’ve revisited the last decade of Wilco albums and am listening to them differently. It turns out that the sound I’ve always loved from Wilco was in them all along, and Cruel Country somehow helped me peel back the layers of arrangements and experience the craftsmanship of the songs in a more raw way. Wilco I an important band in my life and I’m grateful they haven’t become a nostalgia act and continue to innovate and evolve. But in Cruel Country, when they’ve created something that is both new and familiar. If you’ve fallen out of touch with this band over the years, I think this record will bring you back into the fold.
Find Wilco info here: https://wilcoworld.net