Sunday, June 17

So Misunderstood: A Defense of Sky Blue Sky and an Attack on the Self-Consuming Indie Culture

I am likely to hear it from all of you on this one, so I’ll apologize…for coming to bat for Sky Blue Sky by Wilco. More specifically, I want to assert the point that perception is key and ignorance may be bliss on this one.

Fact: Wilco’s sound has evolved in some way for almost every, if not every, album thus far.

Fact: Sky Blue Sky is not A Ghost is Born or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Cue indie-pop-rockster panic button.

The quest to repeat an album’s effect on its audience is the Grail quest of the music world. From New York to LA, Detroit to Compton, Seattle to Chi-town…the myth persists that an album’s success is often derived from the repetition of a previous album’s “x-factor.”

I’m no different, by the way. The first words out of my mouth in an indie rock dick-measuring contest are “Oh it’s not (insert album)” or “It’s better than (insert album).” It just feels good to say it. I know it. You know it. Unfortunately, in this musical culture, nitpicking an album is the next best thing to actually liking it.

However, we are talking about Wilco here, a band whose catalog is an exercise in evolution. Not to mention their front man is Jeff Tweedy.

Tweedy has been here before, he has seen this and already moved on. From Uncle Tupelo to Wilco, he has been reviewed badly, he had been reviewed wonderfully. Is it insulting to some people to think that maybe, after nipping at more and more of the charts in their past two albums, Wilco might be playing for a broader crowd? Possibly. This is especially the case after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot made cultured rockers around the scene moisten with its dexterous leap from alternative country to Indie rock gold. And especially after the tremendous follow up that is A Ghost is Born.

That’s right, I almost forgot: A Ghost is Born didn’t suck. Again, and most importantly, the album known as A Ghost is Born did not suck. Think about that. You impress the snottiest and most cannibalistic reviewing culture in American music and then you release an album that doesn’t suck (and definitely might be great)? Throw up the horns, Tweedy. You can use your other hand to polish the Grammy this album won for best Alternative Music Album.

Sky Blue Sky? Well, I’m wagering that it also doesn’t suck. Also, I think it’s at least good enough, probably just flat out fucking good. Still, it has issues, as do all albums. Its main problem is that the strengths of both Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born are present in the album. Sounds like a good thing, right? Not necessarily. When aspects of both albums have previously done something new for the band, the employment of such devices again here will be subdued. Not only that, the DNA of both albums is polarized, never in the same place at the same time. Sometimes they are even in the same song, but the boundary is oftentimes clearly visible. In other words, the atmospheric, transient, shoe-gazing qualities of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are contained in parts of the album yet held separate from the shock-rocking, sharp-twilled, and delightfully off beat Nels Cline solos that ring clearly of Tweedy’s strides on A Ghost is Born. This failure to move as a whole is really the album’s greatest detriment if what you were looking for was another reinvention or transformation.

By the way, the key words in the previous sentence were “if what you were looking for.”

But does the album literally sound bad? I don’t think so. But, it may not sound new to a lot people. Again, keep in mind that Wilco might be playing for a wider audience now. Look what happened to Modest Mouse when they were nominated for a Grammy.

So in the case of Sky Blue Sky, gauging the steps made by the band is more difficult than with previous albums. In all honesty, I think the move to consolidate the band’s sound is what terrifies longtime listeners and critics, not necessarily the softening of the sound.

The Yankees might possibly not win the pennant: fire Torre.

And it’s not as if the band has ever had a fear of changing their sound, and incidentally their lineup, or that their evolution has ever been predictable. Just go pop A.M. in and tell me you could tell they were going to end up sounding like this. Arguably that’s what makes Wilco great. In other words, as the late, great Bruce Lee said, “True form is to have no form.”

Still, in Foxtrot, we heard ghosts being born in songs like “I am trying to break your heart” and “I’m the man who loves you.” And Sky Blue Sky can be traced from songs like “At least that’s what you said”, “Hell is chrome” and “Company in my back.” No definite road maps or giveaways, but you can see certain seeds being planted and nurtured for various reasons, ranging from the addition of a band member to the addiction of another.

Also, I’ve noticed that when a band pursues the same sound, one of two things happens. Either they end up sucking or the focus of their albums begins to land on singles, not entire albums. On the flip side, when a band continually pushes their sound into new areas, the risk of alienating fans is ever present. Sucks, doesn’t it?

As for the passiveness in Tweedy’s writing that seems to be pestering the general listening public: go figure. Winning a Grammy and going into rehab all in one stint…sounds like a recipe for some seriously upbeat and poppy indie innovation…right? Not so much. It does sound like a recipe, however, for a quieter retrospective on an already accomplished catalog.

Sky Blue Sky, with its scenic piano scores and daring leaps into solo riffs, draws on a number of the strength’s that have stayed with the band despite everything else. As for the effect an album has on you the listener? No matter what, the first album you heard that made you listen to the band on a consistent basis, made you respect the band and learn the names of people in it, will never come around again for you. I’m sorry, I really am, but everything aesthetic will depreciate.

So, if you followed Tweedy from Uncle Tupelo and dug A.M., you may have been so pissed for so long that you aren’t even reading this. If you caught the Wilco scent because you read about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on Pitchfork and needed it desperately to go with those thick rim glasses and zip-up hoodies you just couldn’t seem to match (and are still pissed about the fact that you can’t actually play guitar)…you’re doubly disappointed because, despite the improbability, A Ghost is Born was almost what you were looking for and that gave you hope that maybe, just maybe, the next album would do it.

Me? I came on at A Ghost is Born. I knew that “I’m the man who loves you” was sassy and that “Heavy Metal Drummer” was catchy as all hell, but I wasn’t really sold until Tweedy went into a room by himself and smacked his guitar around a little. And even though I went back and listened to everything I could find, I also know that I missed the boat, and I’m cool with that. Still, I lack a foundation in the band’s roots in country as well as their aura before their edgy makeover. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them second hand, but the reckless style in A Ghost is Born is what finally grabbed my attention.

So I guess it’s all about perspective. We’re not in Wilco and we don’t have a say in the intention and execution of the band as a project, which can be upsetting to some of us. However, perspective wise, we are all sitting proudly right where we were when we saw the Wilco train go by for the first time. That pristine memory of unadulterated and accidental perfection is what persists in our perception of what Wilco is and should be, as is the case with anything else we’ve ever loved.

And we’ll probably stay there. Really, though, that’s not such a bad thing. After all: “What would we be without wishful thinking?”

by James Keough


Anonymous said...

I don't have a username, but this is max orenstein. i like sky blue sky, and even though i think james keough is sexy, im pretty sure modest mouse never won a grammy.

Paul Tsikitas said...

Ronny James. I am glad you came up to bat on this one. Sky Blue Sky is a very good album. From all aspects, it's golden Wilco. No bullshit attached. I think what we miss from this effort is the fact the Tweedster is no longer doin' the drugs. So we don't get the edgy stuff as much. However, the cleaned up sound is also a welcome new turn back to the Being There style of Wilco that I, frankly after two well but sometimes over produced albums, is the Wilco I love the best.