Album review: Wilco's 'The Whole Love'
Wilco in 2011 finds all six members reaching out into new directions, but the result is a strong and cohesive 12-song effort that recalls ‘Summerteeth' and ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.'
It feels a little funny starting a review of Wilco's new album “The Whole Love” with an ode to a drummer, but then Glenn Kotche is no ordinary drummer. Plus, his weird snare-and-bass-kick beat opens the Chicago band's eighth studio album and is the first indicator that Wilco is headed toward yet another heretofore unexplored realm.
The song, called “Art of Almost,” is more than seven minutes long and begins with Kotche introducing an urgent but oblong rhythm, one that takes a few go-rounds to click as a pattern. Once it does, the percussionist, who spent his early years working in Chicago's experimental underground community and whose underrated Nonesuch Records solo album “Mobile” connects many of the legendary label's various strands, drives the next 60 seconds as droplets of synthetic notes gradually introduce a kinda-sorta melody before the whole thing drifts into a fog of strings that sounds like that moment in “A Day in the Life,” except prettier.
It'd be easy to spend the rest of this review, in fact, writing about Kotche's work on “The Whole Love,” how later in that same song he strips away everything except a metronomic, nail-driving snare snap, which propels a wild Nels Cline guitar solo that extends for the final two minutes.
But then each of the five other men who constitute Wilco in 2011 pushes himself in new directions: Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, Cline, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen. Tweedy, the band's founder, singer and songwriter, solidified this lineup in 2007, and he sure knows how to pick 'em. The result on “The Whole Love” is a work by a group of exceptional musicians who, four years into their collaboration, have melded into one.
Over the band's 17-year career, Tweedy's Wilco has gradually moved from a roots-rock band to something a bit more nebulous, as though the bandleader were with each album further distancing himself from his whiskey bottle and Levis past.
That process began long ago with the sophomore double album “Being There,” and was further cemented on the band's first great departure, “Summerteeth” from 1999, a guitar-pop gem with nary a hint of twang or blues. Wilco's 2002 album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” remains its most adventurous and acclaimed; more recent albums such as “Sky Blue Sky” — the first featuring the band's current lineup — and its last album, “Wilco (The Album),” saw the group step back a little into more traditional, sing-song structures.
Not so “The Whole Love,” a 12-song effort that's way more “Summerteeth” and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” than more recent efforts: The band is having fun not only with sound but with structure, without sacrificing catchiness. Nearly every song contains some tangential surprise, odd hook, sonic back flip or midsong redefinition. The first single, “I Might,” sounds like ? and the Mysterians covering Radiohead and is the closest thing to a simple rock song on the record (rivaled by “Dawned on Me,” which suggests Electric Light Orchestra). “Sunloathe” is a surreal, psychedelic piano ballad carried forward by Kotche's miscellaneous noise and layers of intricate countermelodies. “Standing O” sounds stolen from Elvis Costello's “This Year's Model.”
Wilco's Achilles' heel has always been Tweedy's voice. His singing lives in the midrange; he has trouble going too high — he's never done falsetto — and can't hit Johnny Cash notes without a pack of cigarettes and an early-morning vocal session. Though Tweedy sings all the songs, he's not a supercharged Mick Jagger or Thom Yorke presence; he's more George Harrison than John Lennon. And his lyrics, while evocative, are occasionally too rocky, wordy or unfocused, and mine his thematic obsession with enduring — and unenduring — love, offering little personal snapshots that he attempts to draw universal circles around.
But there's so much going on within “The Whole Love,” so many well-oiled parts driving each song, that the occasional blown cylinder is barely noticeable and is nearly eclipsed by the gorgeous, epic 12-minute closer, “One Sunday Morning (For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend),” which transforms a curlicue guitar line, Stirratt's stealthily engaging bass lines and Jorgensen's confident, free-form piano improvisations into a mesmerizing whole. As the song fades, one sound remains: Kotche's high-hat rhythm. It fades to black as the album closes, but it's probably still echoing quietly somewhere up in outer space.
"The Whole Love"
dBpm Records / Anti-
Three and a half stars (Out of four)
-- Randall Roberts