Sky Blue Sky – Wilco
Those who’ve been following rock for a decade or three might have grown tired by now of the drama of following a band. Since the mid-'90s, Wilco has been doing its best to make a case for it. The discovery of hidden potential with Being There, the rise and banishment of assorted band members and the rare victorious battle with a major label have all spiced up the story. And, of course, Jeff Tweedy, the country punk turned adult-alternative poet, remains at the center.
Some have viewed Sky Blue Sky as a departure. To this listener, though, it mainly furthers trends that began with their previous studio album, A Ghost Is Born: warm, analog sonics, thick textures (the band is now permanently a sextet rather than relying on Jim O’Rourke’s extra set of studio hands to become one), a noticeable reluctance to rock. The true change is that Tweedy is now a calm man. “I survived/it’s good enough for now,” he sings on the title cut, and that sums up the mood of his current set of lyrics.
How much one likes those lyrics depends on how much he's bought into the drama. One might enjoy the thought that the woman who once begged Tweedy not to hit her is now making him learn to use the washing machine (“Hate It Here”) and pushing him unusually far into sentimentality in “On And On And On.” If not, he might at least note that “What Light” is the most Mermaid Avenue-esque track Wilco has produced since its meeting with Billy Bragg and the lyrics of Woody Guthrie. And you might like the playing.
Another Ghost Is Born development was Wilco’s discovery of the extended guitar solo. While that album featured Tweedy’s primitivism, Sky Blue Sky showcases Nels Cline. In the Kicking Television Vic show I saw, Cline stepped out once, on a surprisingly jazzy, articulate solo appended to “Ashes Of American Flags.” Fortunately, he gets several more such chances here. On “Side With The Seeds,” for instance, it’s tempting not to worry about what topic is making Tweedy emote and wait for Cline to melt down the fretboard in the song’s second half. And although drummer Glenn Kotche’s textural percussion is left aside, he fares well as one-sixth of a tight, road-tested rock ensemble.
Sky Blue Sky is a less spectacular chapter in the Wilco story than Being There or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and its contentment leaves one hoping a snoozy future isn’t in store. For now, though, take it for what it is: a six-piece band with years of roadwork and experiments in avant garde and Americana under its belt, with its frontman apparently happy not to be experiencing much drama lately.