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Wilco, Sky Blue Sky
I have followed Wilco since A.M. was released in 1995, and each successive record has given me a glimpse of the different stages of their consciousness. Early on their earnest and heartfelt approach to Americana was a refreshing change from the holdover grunge bands and startup pop-punk bands that were selling big numbers. Wilco never seemed to follow trends and when other bands of their alt-country ilk began riding the cliché into the sunset, Wilco changed form and released the noisy and off-beat Summerteeth in 1999. They then followed that up with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album as infamous for their label deeming it unfit to release as it is famous for its incredible complexity and depth.
So I sound too much like a Wilco fanboy? Well although sales numbers and legions of recently indoctrinated fans would disagree, I was under whelmed by Wilco's last record A Ghost is Born. To me it seemed like the hangover from the emotionally draining outburst that was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and while it had some strong tracks such as "Hummingbird" and "Handshake Drugs", it didn't connect with me emotionally like previous albums. On top of that the sparse and quietly mic'd recording seemed to try too hard to set a mood instead of letting the music lead you there gently.
On Sky Blue Sky the band seems much more at ease, and instead of forcing a mellow yet sophisticated vibe through production, they channel a flowing vein of newfound confidence and turn out songs that stand up better better as a whole than A Ghost is Born. The album marks a return to leaning on lead vocalist Jeff Tweedy to carry more of the burden with his voice commanding but never overpowering the message of the music. There is a timelessness to songs such as "You Are My Face" and "Side With the Seeds" that is very infectious. Tracks like the title cut "Sky Blue Sky" wash over you like morning sunlight leaving just enough mystery to avoid being detached. While some of their influences can be traced to artists such as Gram Parsons and Electric Light Orchestra, Wilco treads their own path and avoids falling into any specific categorization. On "Shake It Off", they delve into a lazy hitch-and-go jam that proves they still haven't gotten too serious for their own good. The final track,"On And On And On" leaves you with the bittersweet lyric "You and I will try to make it better yet…", indeed.
Some are saying on internet blogs that Wilco has sold out trying to attempt commercial success by deviating from the experimental path they have tread for the past three albums. I would contend the album is a gateway for Wilco to continue making the records they want to make. Remember when everyone lambasted U2 for not making another Joshua Tree, especially after they dropped reminders of it on Rattle and Hum? Well they would have long ago faded from relevance if they would have succumbed to this pressure and resigned themselves to the fate of bands like Oasis who just kept cranking out the same thing until it stopped meaning anything to anyone. Wilco clearly goes a different if somewhat familiar direction on Sky Blue Sky which may keep them from becoming their own worst enemy creatively.
While not overt, much of the underlying fury of Wilco's past two releases seemed to stem from the escalation of various crises in the world. Should we expect them to be a socio-political temperature gauge? Personally I believe the fire must sometimes be tamed to avoid running out of fuel. My contention is Sky Blue Sky is a portrait of what Wilco is at this place in time and that is enough. I highly recommend you give it a listen.