Why Is Everyone Always Saying Such Dumb Shit About Wilco?

Upon the release of their 13th studio album, "Cousin," we examine how Jeff Tweedy and co. have become the most misunderstood band on earth.

October 3, 2023 1:08 am
the band wilco standing on a frozen pond
Wilco just released their 13th studio album, "Cousin."
Peter Crosby

Thirteen albums and nearly 30 years into a career that’s most easily defined by Jeff Tweedy’s continued insistence on evolving, Wilco has come to be written about and discussed almost exclusively in terms relative to one’s favorite era of the band. 

You have your old-school alt-country types, who favor the straightforward singalongs of A.M and Being There. You have your diehard Jay Bennett acolytes who swear by the dense power-pop arrangements of Summerteeth. A ton of extremely vocal and extremely annoying people, of course, insist it’s been all downhill since the  groundbreaking Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The follow-up to that album, A Ghost Is Born, is a favorite among real Wilco nerds, and then 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, the first album with the now-permanent lineup, has always been somewhat divisive, as conversations around it long centered on the hideous term dad rock

It was at this point, in 2007, when the problem became really pronounced. Everyone, it seemed, wished Wilco would just go back to sounding like one of these previous versions of Wilco. To the band’s credit, this has never really been in the cards, and whether you’re reading coverage of them in respected publications or following along with chatter on fan pages across the internet, there’s no shortage of people who are really mad about it.

This is to be expected, of course. When you’ve been making records for this long, and you’ve had the kind of success Wilco has had, it will always be difficult to keep everyone satisfied — especially when you’re as restless creatively as Tweedy. What’s so frustrating about it, though, is that it sometimes seems like people who are perpetually unimpressed by the band’s most recent work — again, even the people who are theoretically being paid to share their opinions — are just straight-up…not listening?

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Last week, Wilco released Cousin, which was produced by the excellent Welsh musician Cate Le Bon. When the record was announced a few months back, word from the band was that they were “back in their more familiar progressive and experimental rock territory” after the ostensibly more Americana-leaning Cruel Country. Unsurprisingly, now that the record has arrived, everyone has opinions about whether it is in fact as experimental as promised. It’s worth noting, though, that many of the more experimental moments in the band’s career have been unceremoniously ignored, glossed over in overarching judgments of the band’s broader catalog that don’t always make a whole lot of sense to anyone who’s truly been paying attention.

“Since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, Wilco has settled into a more straightforward musical style,” begins a review of Cousin in the online publication Slant, “defined by stripped-back, acoustic instrumentation and Jeff Tweedy’s confessional songwriting.” The records the reviewer is referencing, then, are Wilco (The Album), The Whole Love, Schmilco, Star Wars, Ode to Joy and Cruel Country. With the possible exception of Cruel Country and parts of Schmilco, this is at best a massively simplistic take and, more accurately, just demonstrably untrue. There’s barely an audible acoustic guitar on Star Wars, for example, while The Whole Love famously kicks off with the 7-plus-minute “Art of Almost,” a hard-rocking song that features drum machines,  synths, crazy-sounding strings and some of guitarist Nels Cline’s most impressive, dizzying playing ever. Wilco (The Album), meanwhile, is full of upbeat songs with a production style that occasionally, for better or worse, leans more arena rock than “acoustic confessional.”

And then there’s Ode to Joy, which admittedly can be plodding at points, but also extremely heavy and deeply, deeply weird. Watch this video of drummer Glenn Kotche explaining the intricacies of the drum parts on each song on the album — to describe anything here as “straightforward” would be laughable. Even this performance of “Everyone Hides” from The Late Show — this probably is the album’s most straightforward song, yet it features Tweedy playing a rubber-bridge guitar (which has since become wildly popular with people like Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers) and Cline ripping a series of noisy, dexterous guitar solos that sound like you’re in the middle of a really fucked up game of laser tag. If this is can truly only be described as “straightforward,” I don’t know why most other bands even bother getting out of bed.

Cousin comes out of the gates with a clear mission statement in “Infinite Surprise.” There’s incessant percussive clicking and some screeching, moaning soundscape stuff that I can only assume is coming from Nels Cline’s bottomless bag of toys. Eventually a clean, chimey electric guitar and Tweedy’s warm, close-mic’d vocals join the mix, and things slowly build from there: increasingly unpredictable drums, synths, some weird rattling, multi-tracked falsetto vocal parts — a total cacophony that fades into an unsettling crackling that sounds like a cross between static and the final kernels of popcorn popping. Others have noted this, but it’s among their most compelling opening tracks ever, even going back to the iconic “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” off of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

From there, things do settle down a bit. “Ten Dead” is purposely sleepy, almost numb-feeling, with lyrics that not-so-vaguely allude to news reports about mass shootings. That numbness — the failure to adequately process what’s happening around you — is a theme throughout the record, and while the musical tone never matches quite as explicitly as it does here, there is, seemingly by design, a coldness or stoicism to many of these songs that feels novel for the band. But then by the final song, “Meant to Be,” things sound light as a feather, even as Tweedy drops a couple of his most bittersweet lines ever: “Each day is longer than the one before / Fewer left, less and less / I need you more.” It’s a glorious close to the album, and in a live setting, it should provide a real feeling of relief.

Because there are very few guitar solos or huge drum fills or obvious singalong choruses on Cousin, you can already start to see exactly how people will write it off. They’ll say that it feels small, middle-of-the-road, and, as always, that the non-Tweedy members of the band aren’t being utilized enough. This has been a standard complaint since 2007, pretty much, filed mostly on behalf of Nels Cline, I believe. Everyone seems to want “Impossible Germany” ad nauseam, which is understandable enough but also a disservice to a musician who’s clearly at home using his instrument to create strange, textured beds upon which Tweedy’s songs can be further built. I don’t know if people think all the weird noises on these records are coming from a computer plug-in or something, but they’re not — they’re coming from actual human beings manipulating instruments and effect pedals in real time, on a level that extraordinarily few others are capable of. It’s beyond reductive to say they’re not being utilized properly because of a lack of traditional guitar shredding.

So is Cousin as experimental as it purports to be? I suppose the answer depends on your definition of experimental. I never know for sure what people are looking for when this word pops up, but I suspect all too often the singular point of reference for most people is early-2000s Radiohead. And if that is the case for you, then no, Cousin is probably not going to be as “experimental” as you would like it to be. But if your definition of the term expands to include songs taking odd shapes and veering off into unexpected areas, and being constructed of seemingly disparate parts with wildly different timbres, then yes, I think you’ll be pleased. I also think it’ll help if you’re willing to put in time for some dedicated listening on a good stereo or on high-quality headphones — these songs aren’t going to bash you over the head, exactly, but if you let them, they’ll certainly crawl inside.

Because Wilco has never stopped releasing new music or touring for any significant amount of time, and because Jeff Tweedy has been releasing outstanding solo records at a decent clip since 2018, I think there’s an even more pronounced tendency for people to simply take them for granted — to complain about not getting exactly what one wants from them — while failing to fully recognize what they continue to accomplish.

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