ountry music has, as an element of the genre arguably intrinsic to the form, a certain emotional resonance. Whether it belongs to the method of strumming or the supposed connection to an older, weirder America (ala Greil Marcus), Country as a genre is capable of packing a startling amount of emotion into relatively simple melodies and direct, unassuming lyrics.
As Wilco have lost their alt-country trappings, then, Jeff Tweedy has had to find other ways to maintain the level of emotion without which he has yet to make a record. On Summer Teeth Wilco kept their loud, crunchy guitars and warm, full production, but wrapped the melodies around considerably darker, less coherent lyrical studies. On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Tweedy has adapted a new voice: more plaintive, vulnerable, and uncertain.
Which might raise a few alarm bells: since the audacious 1996 double album Being There, confidence has never been a thing Tweedy lacked, and this more “experimental” Wilco is, if anything, an extension of his ambitions. It is hard to swallow claims, even unstated, of uncertainty. As it states proudly from it’s opener, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, (“You know I’d be lying / If I said it wasn’t easy”) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a manipulative album, any seeming new-found vulnerability merely compensating for the removal of genre-connected constructs and the addition of theoretically alienating experimental elements.
And I emphasize “theoretically”. By now everyone has heard Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s story: it has been delayed for over a year because of label problems. Warner/Reprise refused to accept it, citing it as alternatively “non-commercial” or “too experimental”. This is difficult to believe for any number of reasons: recent history, for one. Kid A, a seriously alienating piece of work, debuted at #1, gaining its own label quite a bit of respect in the process. But more importantly, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is about as “experimental” as you and your roommate sitting around playing Green Day covers. It’s a studio album, granted, and production plays a much more noticeable part in Wilco’s sound than on previous records. But the same could be said about hundreds of albums in the last decade. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a set of direct, emotionally resonant pop songs, and anyone who describes it to you as “alienating”, including Jeff Tweedy, is a liar.
Here, too, the album is manipulative, using a few well-executed production tricks to give the album a (genuine) cohesiveness and a (more questionable) sense of progress that had been previous lacking on Wilco’s records. “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, as it breaks apart in its final minutes, foreshadows bits and moments that will come later in the album. Foreshadowing is a technique common to the point of tiredness in film, but seldom found on albums. This is because it implies a narrative structure to which most albums to not aspire (but which films, of course, more or less require). Yankee Hotel Foxtrot doesn’t have a narrative structure, but it does an admirable job pretending.
There are other methods the album uses to tie its tracks together. The sudden disappearance of Wilco’s warm, crunchy guitars leaves a lot more room in the sound for other, less conventional instruments, as well as “ambient” production noises, whose consistency draws common threads between disparate songs. And if there is no narrative, there are repeating themes, revolving mostly around communication, whether difficulties lying therein, as on the closer, “Reservations”, or the symbols which can substitute for it, as on the albums stunning centerpiece, “Ashes of American Flags”.
Unfortunately, those guitars are missed. The songwriting here is excellent, as Tweedy’s always is, but the compositions lack a certain forcefulness. Tweedy’s vocals tend to be ethereal, never grounding themselves in rowdy rockers as they did on Being There, and the rare accompanying vocals seem to be merely faded duplicates of the lead. Hence, when the album does want to rock, such as on “Heavy Metal Drummer”, it falls flat.
This is probably conscious: “I’m The Man Who Loves You”, the following track, starts out with a blistering guitar solo, only to sputter out and be taken over almost against it’s will by a sing-songy chorus. In the album’s struggling for communication (“If I could / You know I would / Just hold your hand / And you’d understand”) this is a direct dismissal of the band’s previous tactics. The problem is that the solo sounds so good, and makes the lack of prominent guitar lines even more noticeable on the rest of the album.
Wilco clearly wanted Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to stand as their masterpiece. And were it not for this loss of force (and a few slight tracks), it would stand as such. Even as it stands, though, a better album has not been put out this year (or, for that matter, the last). It is hard to imagine an album with so much apparent room for improvement standing as a classic, but even so, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a great album, and an outstanding place for prospective new Wilco fans to start.
Reviewed by: Ryan Hamilton
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01