Earlier this year, when I took a break from this space, I returned to review what was – in hindsight – the final new studio record from R.E.M., Collapse Into Now (at least as we can tell at the moment). No doubt by now you've heard, the remaining members of the Athens, Ga., trio decided to call it a career after more than 30 years of work. Few acts have been as influential in American independent rock as R.E.M., while also contributing such a fine catalog of material. So, it is only fitting that I again return from a hectic period to consider the new output of a band heavily influenced by and associated with those Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famers in the form of the Chicago-based outfit, Wilco, and their seventh release of original material, The Whole Love – out today on the band's own label, dBpm.
To beleaguer the R.E.M. connection for just a bit, Wilco frontman, guitarist and songwriter Jeff Tweedy began his musical journey in the pioneering St. Louis alt-country trio, Uncle Tueplo. A rough and unrefined entity, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck found his way to the group and produced their third full-length offering, March 16-20, 1992. But tensions between Tweedy and co-frontman Jay Farrar ultimately led to the demise of the act, as Farrar went on to found Son Volt, while Tweedy assembled the first iteration of Wilco in 1995. Tweedy would continue his working relationship with Buck, most notably contributing guest vocals on Buck's The Minus 5 side project on "With a Gun."
When The Police called it quits in 1986, they very publicly anointed their successors by literally handing their instruments to U2 on stage at Giants Stadium. And while there's unlikely to be such a explicit coronation by R.E.M., it isn't a stretch to suggest that Wilco is primed to assume their title as America's trendsetting rock ensemble that is also accessible to a wider swath of the general public than indie devotees. Consider the bands' mutual foundation in the marriage of Americana roots instrumentation, touches of country flavor and a resounding intellectualism that also manages not to overwhelm good songwriting. Drop the needle on Wilco's "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" off their sophomore effort, Being There and I defy you to miss the strains of "Man on the Moon." Similarly, build up the patience to work your way through all of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – Wilco's 2002 sonic opus – and you'll find R.E.M.'s painstaking focus on Life's Rich Pageant from 1986 not far in the rear view mirror, or notice the congruities between R.E.M. serving as the backing band for Warren Zevon on 1987's Sentimental Hygiene, and Wilco's work with Billy Bragg to give voice to two albums worth of Woody Guthrie's lyrics that became the Mermaid Avenue collection. The bridge between the two groups becomes more obvious with every glance. And although they were surely unaware of R.E.M.'s impending retirement while formulating The Whole Love, the new record's dozen tracks easily positions Tweedy and his mates to carry on in their stead.
Like their six preceding albums, The Whole Love builds upon what came before it – much like the arc of R.E.M.'s career – but doesn't take as vast a sonic leap as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with its long stretches of aural freakouts or the unsettling urgency that accompanied A Ghost Is Born, which was fueled by the forced departure of former multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Bennett would pass away in 2009 from accidental causes, having never reconciled with Tweedy). All the same, it's a more consistent effort, with even it's avant garde movements informing Tweedy's reconciliations with more straightforward Americana and alt-country concepts.
The collection is bookended – and in many ways defined – by its longest tracks, with the more than seven minutes of the "Art of Almost" at its outset reflected by the concluding "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," checking in at just over 12 minutes. The two cuts couldn't be more different, however, with the disjointed experimentation of the former aligning with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's "Radio Cure" and A Ghost Is Born's "Spiders (Kidsmoke)." If you're already a Wilco fan and have some appreciation for Tweedy's insistence on pushing the envelope, give it a try. If not, this might not be the most natural place to begin your Wilco encounter. Conversely, the closing number is measured in its simplicity and rusticism, perhaps a bit more familiar for those ingrained in the alt-country milieu, although its in no rush to get anywhere in particular.
With those dual pillars affixed at either reach of the record, the intermediate selections seem to have the opportunity to stretch out in comfort. "I Might" introduces a heretofore unannounced influence in Tweedy's arsenal: Attractions-era Elvis Costello. With its punchy grove and the Farfisa organ delivered by keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, it's one of the band's most hooky offerings. To the same degree later on, "Standing O" serves up much of the same Costello-esque palate, but with a touch more brashness suggested by its title. The pairing would serve as a choice accompaniment for your next house party or sports rally, and would be a good jumping-off point for those a bit scared off by Wilco to date. Meanwhile, "Dawned On Me" stems from the same indie-rock tradition as more recent purveyors of the genre, such as NMT reviewees The New Pornographers and Telekinesis, with clenching guitars from Tweedy and guitarist Nils Cline locking-in a certain rigidity, which frees up more space for Jorgensen's organ and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone to play around with the synthesizers. Tweedy's whistling solo also helps to lighten the mood, along with more fleshed-out harmonies, typically not a Wilco trademark.
Some of the most interesting moments on the collection come via the most alt-country flavored compositions, pointing to Tweedy's time in Uncle Tupelo and Wilco's early releases. "Sunloathe" isn't especially spirited, but it makes up for lack of drive in earnestness and an ethereal and wispy figure, one highlighted by the alternations between chimes and bells and slide guitar and concludes with a nearly classic rock guitar bent from Kline. Likewise, the gentle shuffle of "Born Alone" pivots around a rubbery bass line from John Stirratt – the only original Wilco member since 1995's A.M. aside from Tweedy – and really digs in around the track's midpoint for the record's most aggressive rock campaign. And the jazzy "Capitol City" is a less romantic, but equally compelling version of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's "Jesus, Etc.," and is the closest Tweedy will ever get to a straight-up narrative.
The remainder of the 12 tracks are filled in by generally somber and reflective acoustic ballads. The trio of "Black Moon," "Open Mind" and "Rising Red Lung" are more reliant on Tweedy as an upfront presence, which isn't necessarily uninviting on its own, but he serves as a much more effective messenger when backed by the weight of his compatriots – whomever they happen to be at the time – much in the same manner as Springsteen loses a sizable portion of his gravitas when not supported by the mighty E Street Band.
Come for: "I Might"
Stay for: "Standing O"
You'll be surprised by: "Capitol City"