Home, and the Difficulty of Making One: The Whole Love by Wilco, featuring Jeff Tweedy

By Daniel Garrett

Wilco, The Whole Love
Produced by Jeff Tweedy
with Patrick Sansone and Tom Schick
dBpm Records, 2011

The men of Wilco—Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline, Patrick Sansone, and Mikael Jorgensen—produce good, dependable art, music that you can live with. Dark, beat-driven, crackly and bell-like, the first song on Wilco’s The Whole Love, “Art of Almost,” sounds both natural and electronic, creating an atmosphere that becomes explosive. The singer’s voice is expressive—smooth but loose—and something of a contrast, the sane perspective within madness. It is a sanity that can be trusted; and that is appreciated as the logic of the lyrics is hard to discern: the song could be about the anticipation and fear of love, and the difficulty of making a home—but the lines have an interrupted quality. That jumbled aspect may be part of modern life but I think it is more admirable to transcend rather than reproduce that. The song that follows, with high energy, is jangly, uptempo, and called “I Might,” and though it has a shadowy beat and noisy guitar accents, as well as startling lyrics (“Your snow-cone, and it’s piss and blood” and “you won’t set the kids on fire, but I might”), the song “I Might” is positively Beatlesque. The ephemeral quality of music—it seems to take place in the air, though that is not where it starts—and the fact that music comes to us as a desire more than a need create liberties for artists and audience: intentions or meanings do not have to be confirmed; and art is often most effective, most powerful, when it is ambiguous enough to allow different interpretations; and yet imprecision can both suggest and elude meaning. The music of Wilco on The Whole Love is easy to listen to, not abrasive, not strange. “Sunloathe” is a ballad, with piano and guitar; and the mid-tempo “Dawn on Me” reminds one of 1970s rock; while “Black Moon” could hardly be simpler, with acoustic guitar and plain vocal declarations. It is all more reassuring than some might expect; and it is good and solid work, and a pleasure—work that deserves to be heard.

The music group Wilco has lasted for fifteen years and produced eight albums, and it has a famous past: it is a history that began years before, in the mid-1980s, with an Illinois garage-rock group called the Primitives that Jeff Tweedy was in with Jay Farrar, Wade Farrar, and Mike Heidorn (the group was sometimes referred to as the Primatives thanks to a business card misprint)—until the group changed its name to Uncle Tupelo and became a trio with Jay Farrar, Mike Heidorn and Tweedy, a band that explored two earthy and emotional but divergent forms of music: country music and punk rock. One was a rural form of music, the other a city form; one was a form of tradition and the other a repudiation of it; and one was the music of adults, and the other the music of youth. Reconciliation between the two is difficult to imagine; and often the country tradition was easier to hear in the work of Uncle Tupelo, something the group’s admirers did not always admit. Country music has been the sound of complaint and resignation, though sometimes also resilience and wit, but punk, typically, is a music of anger and rebellion, a revolting music in more than one way; and punk, akin to a self-generating, self-infatuated adolescent rage, was considered cool. Uncle Tupelo was popular in the midwestern United States, especially in Missouri, and produced cassettes of its music, before signing with Rockville Records and producing the album No Depression in 1990, which broke through and became a significant influence. The band released Still Feel Gone and March 16-20, 1992 (I think it was the third Uncle Tupelo recording that I first heard, and would sometimes listen to early in the morning, liking its quiet folk sound). Bill Belzer replaced Mike Heidorn as drummer in the group, which was sometimes joined by Max Johnston and Brian Hennenman; and Belzer was replaced by Ken Coomer (both Belzer and Coomer had auditioned around the same time, but band members had first been intimidated by Coomer’s height and hair—dreadlocks—and later by Belzer’s homosexuality). The Uncle Tupelo album Anodyne was produced in 1993 on a major label, Sire Records. Anodyne was Uncle Tupelo’s last recording, before Jeff Tweedy, Ken Coomer, John Stirratt, and Max Johnston created Wilco; and Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn created Son Volt.

Wilco consists now of Jeff Tweedy, lead singer-guitarist; and John Stirratt, singer-bassist; Glenn Kotche, drummer; Nels Cline, guitarist; Patrick Sansone, guitarist and keyboardist; and Mikael Jorgensen, singer-keyboardist. Wilco’s past work: AM, Being There, Mermaid Avenue, Summerteeth, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born, Kicking Television: Live in Chicago, Sky Blue Sky, and the self-named album Wilco. (The Mermaid Avenue albums were focused on Woody Guthrie songs; and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was exceedingly popular.) The Whole Love and the previous two albums—Sky Blue Sky and Wilco—were produced by Tweedy, the group’s principal songwriter, with his current collaborators; and he has spoken of how easy—mature and patient—that collaboration has become. Yet it is hard to complain about the music these adults are making, encompassing an admirable range of influences. (What, after all, did country music and punk rock have in common? Possibly ignorance; and certainly a distrust of cultural sophistication. Who can forget the support of southern rural citizens for the Ku Klux Klan, or the enthusiasm of punks for Nazis? It is good that Wilco now is making music that communicates pleasure and at least musical—if not social—community. One of the best things I have heard about Jeff Tweedy recently concerns his production of Mavis Staples’ album You Are Not Alone and another is Tweedy’s performance of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”) On The Whole Love, the fast rhythm and noise quotient in “Born Alone” conjure an established aesthetic, the melody balanced or contrasted by intentional noise, and the sound quality has warmth, with the human voice at its center.

“I would throw myself underneath the wheels of any train of thought” begins “Open Mind,” on The Whole Love, a song as direct and spare as an early Neil Young ballad. Is it a love song? “I can only dream of the dreams we’d share if you were so inclined,” the narrator declares, his language redundantly romantic and both direct and formal. One of his last lines is, “I would love to be the one to open up your mind.” The voice has an eccentric quality and the soundscape of the composition “Capitol City” evokes a public area, a crossroads; and the song seems an interlude. A blast of energy and sound opens “Standing,” but that is somehow contained despite the galloping rhythm and crescendos; whereas “Rising Red Lung” is quiet, slow. It is hard for me not to think of the Rolling Stones and Prince while listening to the single composition “Whole Love,” in which the lead singer’s voice is high against the strumming of a guitar. “I fell in love with the burden holding me down,” sings the narrator in “One Sunday Morning,” a song with an aura of confusion, its descriptions creating atmosphere. The Whole Love is a good collection of songs. However, although I like the music on Wilco’s album The Whole Love, I must note that I heard two different hard copies of it—compact discs—and each had blips and glitches, which I only can conclude are manufacturing errors, from a band that has begun its own record company.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House. He has written on art, books, business, the environment, film, music, and politics as a member of professional staffs and freelance, with administrative experience as an editorial/production manager dealing with vendors such as photographers and print houses. “It’s interesting to help other people achieve their visions, though it can be alienating or frustrating when you have your own,” says Daniel Garrett, whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. Garrett has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.