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With 'Wilco', Wilco Shows Its Earnest Side

Wilco's new album — called Wilco (The Album) — leads off with a song called "Wilco (The Song)." "Do you dabble in depression?" Jeff Tweedy, the group's leader, sings. "Are you being attacked?" he asks.

His response : "Wilco will love you," he sings. It's a sweet, whimsical way to begin an album containing many comfy, inviting songs. Rare it is for a rock band to speak with such fondness for its audience — even the Beatles felt it necessary to invent Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to do so.

And if I invoke the Fab Four, another reason is that there is Beatlesque music on Wilco (The Album), such as "You Never Know," with the George Harrison-ish melody of its refrain. Wilco may sing the words, "I don't care anymore," but the musical craft behind those words deny them, happily.

On that song, Jeff Tweedy calls his listeners "children," and exhorts them to "grow up." It's not stern daddy-talking; it's more like the yearning hope of a man who's done some growing up himself over the past few years, and he recommends it as healthy, if not life-saving.

This leads Wilco into some attractive love songs, such as Tweedy's duet with the Canadian vocalist Feist, singing about the constant mysteries of getting to know someone you've fallen in love with, on "You And I."

For 15 years, Wilco has done its best to nurture a large cult following with thoughtful experiments in dissonance, with a spacey version of country music and with covers of Woody Guthrie songs that sounded more like Wilco than Guthrie. It's a track record to be proud of, but it's also music that placed each experiment between the band and its audience, walling them off at a safe distance.

Thus the boldest move Tweedy has made on this album is its very directness, whether it's telling us Wilco loves us without fear of seeming sentimental or pandering, or asserting a fierce devotion on the sharp, angular ballad, "I'll Fight."

Wilco (The Album) is about recovery and acceptance: Acceptance of the self; acceptance of one's station in life, and feeling at once humbled and emboldened by that.

Acceptance, but not complacency. Jeff Tweedy is suggesting how you can make stability sound like a tough artistic challenge and a grand adventure.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.