Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – Wilco
Few albums in recent pop memory have been released to such fanfare and
slow-building anticipation as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco's fourth
release, which faced already high expectations after the group's
significant artistic strides made with each previous record. Wilco formed
from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, an early-90s act that gained critical
acclaim (but little commercial success) for their roots-oriented fusion of
country, but disbanded when leader/main songwriter Jay Farrar left to form
Son Volt. The remaining band members, led by guitarist/vocalist/songwriter
Jeff Tweedy regrouped to form Wilco, beginning as a rather straight-ahead
pop-country band before gradually shedding the twang as their artistic
became more and more lofty.
However, the stakes were set even higher when the band's original label,
Reprise, declined to release the follow-up to 1999's
Grammy-nominated Summerteeth, citing minimal hope of commercial
For their part, Wilco took the artistic high ground and refused to
compromise their product, and both parties were happy to part ways. After
shopping the album around to over a dozen major label suitors, Wilco teamed
up with the traditionally classical/avant garde label Nonesuch, and after
several further delays, the album was finally brought to surface at the end
of April 2002. These trials took their toll on Wilco: founding drummer Ken
Coomer left before the sessions were even started, and keyboardist/guitarist
Jay Bennett departed before the
record saw the light of day.
All of this is an interesting story in itself, and the album Wilco created
more than lives up to the auspicious drama that surrounds it. Taken on its
own terms, Foxtrot is a fascinating and compelling mirror of its own
conception. Distortion, miscommunication, and confusion are the central
themes, and these heavy topics make themselves known right from the
beginning, with the skwawk of radio fuzz that opens the first track, "I Am
Trying To Break Your Heart". Drums
tumble in, followed by waves of piano and guitar, and finally Tweedy's
tuneful sing/speak: "I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the
avenue". I know what he means, and I'm pretty sure you will too after you
listen to the song a few times. But if you can put it down on paper let me
know, because I sure can't. The next few lines continue in this fashion,
until Tweedy deadpans and looks directly into the camera: "What was I
thinking when I let you go?"
The first verse of the first song serves as a thematic blueprint for the
rest of Foxtrot: Catchy yet hesitant off-kilter melodies which
basis for Tweedy's jumbled haze of lyrics. For brief periods, the fog
lifts, the signal is clear, and Tweedy's obtuseness gives way to naked
clarity. The first song continues with the narrator expounding on band-aids
and touchdowns before Tweedy, perhaps shattered by the melodic chaos that
surrounds, again opens himself: "I'm the man who loves you". It's the
driving force of the entire album, a one-sided monologue from a narrator who
is unable to deliver a clear message to his intended receiver.
all its tuneful melodies and countrified roots, is awash in radio-static
cacophony and industrial noise. As Tweedy sings later in the album, "My
mind is filled with radio cures/electronic surgical wires".
This is not to say that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is all heavy-handed and no-fun.
There are points that are positively sunny: "Heavy Metal Drummer" bursts
out of a slow-marching dirge into a brief techno-beat break, and quickly
changes gears again and lands in a bright Brian Wilson-ish major chord
progression. The tune is direct, simple, and extremely catchy, and has
already garnered some radio airplay. Over a very danceable groove, Tweedy
sings of longing for innocence and a time of genuine gladness: "I miss the
innocence I've known/playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned". It reminds
the listener of the essential joy surrounding music, and cleverly
underscores the grim outside realities that intrude and distort the act of
communication. Indeed, the catchy melody is augmented by a simple,
descending minor piano riff which adds a slight ominous tone as Tweedy
sings: "bitter melodies, turning your whole world around".
"Reservations" closes the album with the final example of lyrical and
musical conflict; a breakthrough of clarity from Tweedy, and continued
tension and unease from Wilco. "I've got reservations about so many things,
but not about you" Tweedy sweetly sings, his voice just rising to a strain.
The line becomes a repeated mantra, as if despite all the preceding
confusion and strained communication, Tweedy wants this final broadcast to
be the message that his partner is sure to receive unadulterated. For their
part, Wilco leaves the listener with an uncertain closure; the unadorned
song gradually submerges itself deep into feedback as the album fades away.