by Nick McGuire ’17
There are two different Wilcos. One warps sound and emotions, teetering eagerly on the edge of alternative country traditionalism and experimentation, attempting to solve an edgy rock conundrum of how to be loud and be something more evocative or aware. Each time you listen to the band you can’t help but wonder how all this dissonance could exist without the whole album falling to pieces, but you also hear a band that won’t cave to expectations of what music should contain (listen to the songs “Ashes of American Flags” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for more details). Wilco 2.0 is a sentimental factory of middle-aged men whose music is mellowed and produced with such good intentions and impressive musical talent that you become enamored with them first before discovering the original, raw Wilco (see the entirety of Sky Blue Sky). One could call Wilco 2.0, if feeling scathing, the type of band that would hover consistently on the Adult Contemporary charts, but one could also say that comment is a trap and nothing Wilco creates is or ever will be as distinguished or full of expected sounds as previous albums.
And in that same regard, just as Wilco can be broken up into two eras of striking music, Jeff Tweedy, the lead vocalist and songwriter of both Wilco and his namesake’s band, also has two distinct regards to singing and his music. When he was younger he used to sob and shout into the microphone and you heard a man on the edge emoting every pain and disregard he’s ever felt, hollering at you until his voice was the only one you cried to. But now on the tail end of his 40s, Tweedy explores how what he’s said before currently means to himself and his audience. He doesn’t scream much. When he does, like on “Flowering,” where he raises his voice on the rhyme of “Hold me stranger don’t deceive / Angel master can’t retrieve,” his scream is refined and produced to replicate past screams. He convinces you he still has a lot of “new” to give, even though his mature voice stands in the same scope of power on each song he’s written in the past half-decade, eschewing a few.
Is that bad? God no. The consistency Tweedy exhibits in meandering brilliantly through suggestive, thick imagery is not only impressive, but inspiring for anyone who thinks Wilco and Tweedy have a best era, or that they cannot improve on an album that was heralded as one of the best of the 2000s. It’s a continual “Screw you!” to reviewers and listeners who try to categorize the two.
In that regard, every cut on Sukierae sounds like it could have been on another Wilco album, both sprawling effortlessly through the group’s entire discography and acting as an epic consisting of each chapter of the band’s life. The alternative country, folk rock, 90s rock, and jazz/Nels Cline influenced riffs are all here, consuming 20 songs of generously indulgent music. The songs don’t lack the old spontaneity, but sometimes every song feels like it could be the last song on the album and should be.
But this isn’t a Wilco album of outtakes or B-sides, and the sooner you recognize that the better this album sounds. It’s a family affair, consisting of Tweedy and his son Spencer pounding along to the lyrics and emotions Tweedy references—but doesn’t particularly write about: the troubles of Spencer’s mother, whose nickname is the album’s title, and the non-Hodgkin lymphoma form of cancer that resides in her body. Spencer is young enough to need a fake ID, but his drumming is old school and simplistic in the best ways. Listen to the slow snares on “Nobody Dies Anymore,” the quiet rolls on “New Moon,” or the funky backbeat of “World Away.” Spencer shines, playing off his father in the most playful manner. There’s this brilliant moment halfway through “Where My Love” where the song has been drumless until the elder Tweedy sings, “I couldn’t hold you long enough” and, as if putting his arm around his father’s shoulder, Spencer hits a ride cymbal beat to say Hey, I’m here, Dad.
The songs are stripped to the bare essentials of a father and son, a soulful singer and a drummer interplaying. Sure, the back up work of Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe (both from Lucius), and Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5 is well used, sparsely extending the space this album creates. But nothing will compete with the opening of “Nobody Dies Anymore” or the easy punctuation of guitar and drums on “Hazel,” where the instruments create a conversation between words and percussion.
Of course, “Diamond Light, Pt. 1” may be the best song heard from Tweedy and any company in a long while. It begins with feedback, adding a brilliant drumbeat that keeps and manipulates time. The electric guitar is off Tweedy’s vocals by seconds, but the dissonance ramps up, creating a song that feels Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but newer and stronger. This is a man who knows what he wants and how to vocalize those desires, and when he asks in his gravely, waning voice “Are you scared?” you wonder who is more scared: Tweedy, or who he’s asking.
But we shouldn’t be scared for him, because no matter the subject, this kaleidoscope of an album gives Tweedy the freedom to breathe and ride with any of his old styles, and it doesn’t matter if people separate Tweedy’s songs into distinct eras. I’m just glad he has been around long enough to have them, and I don’t believe he will stop anytime soon.