Venerable alt rockers fail to replicate past success on eigth studio effort.
Since releasing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002, Wilco has sounded like a band struggling for direction. First came A Ghost Is Born, which contained some lovely moments but was ultimately overwhelmed by the fuzzed–out guitar noise that had been used so judiciously on Yankee. Sky Blue Sky followed, an LP both consistent and uninspired. 2009 brought Wilco (The Album), utterly unmemorable except for Jeff Tweedy’s duet with Feist on “You And I.”
Wilco’s wanderings in the post–Yankee desert have placed their fans in an uncomfortable spot. With one eye, they look fondly on the band responsible not only for Yankee Hotel but also Being There, Summerteeth and consistently excellent live performances; with the other, they wince at the prospect of yet another overlabored and underwhelming album.
Lamentably, the group’s latest attempt at a return to form, The Whole Love, does not reverse the slide. Like Wilco (The Album), The Whole Love is shapeless, one song unnoticeably shading into another in a way that discourages attentive listening. Unlike their previous record, which at least contained a takeaway single in “You and I,” The Whole Love is devoid of any entry point whatsoever. Instead, Wilco continues to believe that alternating between noise–rock (as in the opener “Art of Almost”) and forgettable curios (like the fairground–inspired “Capitol City”) is the way to regain their vitality.
Elsewhere, “One Sunday Morning” brings 12 minutes of a single repeated acoustic phrase; “Red Lung Rising” wastes some nice pedal–steel guitar work with numbing rhymes; and “Standing O.” shamelessly lifts the keyboards from Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio.”
There’s a lot more, of course, but it’s too wearingly undistinguished to merit discussion. The end impression left by The Whole Love, coming at the end of nine years of flailing, is that Wilco would do well to stop trying so hard. They should take a cue from the Rolling Stones, who didn’t bother trying to top Exile On Main St. with Goats Head Soup, a respectable collection of hangup–free rock and roll. Or consider Bob Dylan, whose encore to Blonde On Blonde was the subdued John Wesley Harding, which, while nobody’s favorite Dylan album, is nothing to be ashamed of.
Both artists followed a landmark with a return to what they knew best. Wilco, instead of continuing its fruitless experimentations with noise, should follow suit and revisit its alt–country beginnings. It may not produce a step forward, but it doesn’t have to. And besides, both Dylan and the Stones had a masterpiece left in them: Blood On the Tracks and Some Girls, respectively. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?
Sounds Like: A great band fallen on hard times.
99–Cent Download: “I Might”
Good For: A reason to dig up old Wilco albums.