Album: Sky Blue Sky
Comments: Ever since the decompression pop of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco’s critically acclaimed 2001 release, the band has been unwilling or unable to recapture their edgy experimental sprit. Their follow-up, A Ghost is Born was an underrated album of guitar driven, country kissed poetry mixing the country / folk twang with a 80s guitar hero bigness, but it couldn’t match the grand opus that was YHF. Still, the band should be given credit for not willing to settle. After all, it was Wilco’s ability to turn themselves from an alt-country band into a phycadelic pop band that made them such critical darlings and fan favorites in 2001. Fans looking for Sky Blue Sky to rival YHF will have to keep looking. Despite (or perhaps because of) a return to their rootys country ways, this is a flat record, and, despite the consistency of the music, their worst since A.M.
The record plays out like A Ghost is Born recorded for adult contemporary stations. It starts off with the charming but mild “Either Way”. The song starts with a nice little guitar riff and piano melody, but never really takes off. It sets a precedent for the record, because a lot of songs on this record are like that; they never take off. Songs like “Sky Blue Sky”, “Please be Patient With Me” , “Hate It Here”, and “Leave Me(Like You Found Me) are all nice little songs but they are soft, reserved numbers that never explore, never develop, and just play like b sides and filler. It’s hard to believe that this is the best Wilco could do.
The guitar work from voodoo witch doctor Nels Cline is as good as it has ever been, and local genius Tweedy still has got an ear for pop and a pen for songwriting, but the band can never really find a balance between the two. In other words, it seems like the songs with the best guitar work have the worst lyrics, and the ones with the best one lines and turns-of-phrase feature crummy song development. Everyone just sounds asleep on this record.
Thankfully, the band does wake up from time to time. The silly honky-tonk of “Walken” is one of the few times on the record where everyone sounds like they’re paying attention (or awake). The song itself isn’t anything special, but compared to the rest of the album, it sounds fresh and alive. “What Light” is the best soft song on the record, reaching back to Wilco’s early days as an alt country band. It’s a soft pop number but, like “Walken”, its got an edge to it, as if there is more under the surface than just poppy gloss and studio-like musicianship. Elsewhere on the record, “You Are My Face” and “Side with the Seeds” feature some really excellent breakdowns, and some truly superior guitar work from Cline, and both are worth a listen just for that. Cline always seems to be trying to push himself forward, and the rest of the band just seems content to listen. Hard to blame them though.
With the exception of a few songs on the album, Sky Blue Sky sounds empty, like it’s missing something. It’s hard to define what exactly; all the songs feature some sharp musicianship and good singing on the part of Tweedy (his voice sounds fantastic on this record). Despite Tweedy’s emoting, the album sounds like it lacks emotion, almost as if Wilco just phoned something in. Tweedy said in a recent interview that this record was the most civil and easy Wilco record ever made in the bands ever-changing lineup. Sky Blue Sky sounds like a comfortable, easy, safe record. Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps Wilco has just become too comfortable together. Sky Blue Sky may sound pretty, but it is the sound of a band losing its edge.
Rating: 5.5 out 10
Key Tracks: “You Are My Face” “Walkin” “What Light”
Worth The Money: Only for die hards.