I’ve Been Too Hard On ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’

OR, Why Wilco Are The Best Band Working Today

So, the last few days I’ve been dusting off an old habit–no, not that kind of habit. Don’t worry, it’s a productive one: I’ve been listening to music I’ve bought on a crappy old Koss CD player I’ve got just before I go to sleep.

For those of you who don’t drive, this will seem redundant. Why not just slap on the ol’ iPod on my way to the streetcar? You see, I drive just about everywhere, and when driving, music takes on a slightly different role–*smash cut to me behind the wheel of the PT Cruiser, weaving in and out of traffic, blasting the last Opeth CD with my middle finger out the window.* Frequently, I find myself appreciating different things than I would were I in your situation. For instance, I now have two separate lists of favorite records. One is the ones I listen to whenever I get a spare minute while stationary–Electric Ladyland, The Bends, The Tremulant EP, etc.–and the other is ‘Car Music.’ Needless to say, it’s mostly Grady, Kyuss, and At The Drive-In.

Note that Wilco’s incredibly lush, overproduced album ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ is not on either list. Wilco and I have had a long and passionate love affair, but as their sound is different on every record, my love for them has always been…selective. Sky Blue Sky? Love it. Wilco (the album?) Kickass. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? I can’t drive downtown to this. Where’s the friggin’ fuzzbox? This is the type of record you (or at least, I) have to sit down and PUT ON specifically for the purpose of listening closely. Not exactly something that jives with my present lifestyle.

Well, seeing as it’s on just about every prominent music critic’s top 10 list for ‘Best Album Ever BLAR’ I decided to give it another chance just before nodding off to sleep the other day. Not that I give a shit what every prominent music critic thinks.

The first thing I noticed about this album is just how textured it is. The different layers of sound, both in and out of time, really do envelop the listener in a way that none of their other albums do. It stands in particularly stark contrast to their next record, Sky Blue Sky, my favorite of theirs, but which is particularly and honestly bare. Maybe I’ll write something else on just why that one kicks so much ass.

Strings, horns, synth, doors opening and closing, what sounds like someone brushing their hands across the taut wires of a piano… there’s lots of NOISE here that’s just not there with most albums, and I will admit that before now, it’s really put me off it. But underneath it–maybe far underneath–is that same core of pure soul that Wilco are one of the only bands around that seem to be able to tap into without coming off like assholes.

Here. Check THIS out.

Okay. What’s happening here? Well, we’ve got glockenspiel, several tracks of piano and organ, a track of drums accenting what seems to be nothing, and a guitar that’s carrying most of the beat. But where’s the song? The core of the song–its soul–is all in Tweedy. Tweedy’s vocals on this one are a lot stronger than I’ve given him credit for in the past,  and the words–the poetry to what he does–are at the same time universal and honest, which is that centre the rest of the song seems to be trying to hide. It’s like he’s telling you exactly what he’s thinking, but can’t look you in the eye while he does it. The band is serving to maybe blunt what is, when we think about it, a fairly terrible thought process that culminates in that chorus/title.

This album doesn’t have to be concise, and it doesn’t have to be pop, because it’s art. There’s all the same elements that make Tweedy such a fabulous songwriter. They’re just hidden underneath the gloss of noise and production. The thing is–the thing I didn’t get before–is that we’re meant to see through it. Like any liar, Tweedy wants to be found out. And that’s the beauty of ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.’

‘I’d always thought that if I held you tightly
You’d always love me like you did back then
Then I fell asleep and the city kept blinking”

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