Wilco has quite a stormy past, beginning with their tumultuous birth from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo about 10 years ago.
Since then, through public and non-public line-up changes, the much ballyhooed label fiasco that preceded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the album’s unparalleled success, Jeff Tweedy and company have persevered. Sky Blue Sky, the band’s latest and sixth studio album, is aptly titled. Inspired, according to Tweedy, by a little-known, 1970s-era, California country band, the album itself sounds compact, and, apparently, that’s just the way they wanted it. Gone are the beds of noise and extended, Crazy Horse-esque fireworks of the band’s last two records. But upfront and accounted for are the hum-worthy and affable ditties with dark underbellies. “This is the most democratic album we have ever made,” said John Stirrat, bassist and only remaining original Wilco member besides Tweedy. Indeed, Sky Blue Sky sounds like six guys in a room playing together rather than five guys following one guy’s lead.
The opener “Either Way” references the intro to Bob Dylan’s aggressive “Blowin’ in the Wind” but soon morphs into somber yet optimistic afternoon reverie. “I Hate It, Here,” about a dumped and forlorn lover, mashes Motown with John Lennon’s good solo work. Some folks have argued that Jeff Tweedy isn’t the poet that his idol Dylan is, but Sky Blue Sky may prove them wrong. Tweedy is at the top of his lyrical game here. One of many killers is from “You Are My Face”: “Happenstance has changed my plans so many times / My heart has been outgrown.”
Like that song, a majority of the tunes concern lost loves and empty relationships. There’s nothing here to indicate that Tweedy’s drug rehab has become Sky Blue Sky fodder. To paraphrase Freud: Sometimes a lullaby is just a lullaby. And Sky Blue Sky is chock full of ‘em. “Walken” is a delightful, rollicking country-piano romp but one that never rises above a conversational tone. For the album’s pervading softness, you can thank indie-jazz guitar virtuoso Nels Cline. Although his tendency to play a lot of notes in tiny spaces sometimes detracts from neat grooves, he manages to opt for color over sparkle most of the time. One of the best things about Sky Blue Sky may be “Impossible Germany,” one of the best songs Wilco has ever written. Starting as a Fleetwood Mac-ish musing, the tune is quickly overtaken by semi-controlled, ominous, exploding guitars. The track, like the rest of the album, shines.-Joshua Loewen