In "Man in the Sand," the documentary on the making of the Mermaid
Avenue albums, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy remembers looking through
the Woody Guthrie Archives, perusing scraps of paper covered with
forgotten lyrics penned by the legendary folkie, and finding the
final entry, dated only days before his death. On the page, repeated
over and over in scratchy handwriting: "Oh God Oh God Oh God Oh God.
.. ." The way Tweedy recalled this, his voice cracking but his eyes
bright, it seemed he wanted to put Guthrie's final lyrics to music.
Now, with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, in a sense he has.
YHF is a fierce record. A wide swath of emotions is bundled
into the disc's 11 songs, but a sense of loss underlies each
sentiment. In the Pavement-esque "Heavy Metal Drummer" (YHF's
cheeriest cut), Tweedy's fond nostalgia for simpler times ("I miss
the innocence I've known/ Playing KISS covers/ Beautiful and stoned")
acknowledges that those days are never to return.
Wilco's music has always been simple. Tweedy has never been one for
studio tricks, his songwriting taking precedence over all else. With
YHF he's begun to rethink that method. Unsettling atmospherics
lurk under his gorgeous chord progressions, but, in this battle of
dissonance and harmony, the sounds of churning machinery and off-key
guitar solos are no match for his wistful melodies.
"Radio Cure" most obviously employs the new Tweedy approach. Acoustic
guitars and Tweedy's croak seek salvation in "electronic surgical
words," as he sings in this morose tune. The drawling verses are
haunted by sounds that keep children up at night
Doppler-effected rings, bursts of static and the screams of celestial
winds while the final chorus makes nice with tinkling tones
that still seem ominous next to Tweedy's pained howl.
While Wilco's evolution has been greatly exaggerated by some in the
media during the year-long layover since YHF was finished, the
last 90 seconds of "Poor Places," the album's penultimate cut, may be
the band's biggest leap yet. After the song's stripped-down
beginnings, a female voice rises in the mix, endlessly repeating the
album's title with a cold detachment as a swirl of white, droning
guitar noise erupts like the engine of a spaceship, returning Wilco
to whatever planet people this brilliant come from.
When musicians talk about songwriting, many say that their songs have
always existed they just pluck them from thin air. The
atmosphere Wilco inhabit is still undiscovered territory. A place
where the heavens, pregnant with hazy tones, move slowly, thick with
the smell of death and always on the verge of shifting in new,