A.M. (Reprise, 1995)
     Being There (Reprise, 1996)
     Summerteeth (Reprise, 1999)
      Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch, 2002)
      A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch, 2004)
     Kicking Television: Live in Chicago (Nonesuch, 2005)
     Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch, 2007)
     Wilco (The Album)
(Nonesuch, 2009)

Billy Bragg and Wilco      Mermaid Avenue (Elektra, 1998)
     Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (Elektra, 2000)

After the breakup of alternative-country mainstays Uncle Tupelo, primary songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy split to form distinctly different bands: Farrar's Son Volt pursued a moody brand of rustic guitar rock that wasn't that far removed from the Tupelo template, while Tweedy's Wilco began pursuing musical ambitions that encompassed everything from avant-rock to orchestral pop, going on to become one of the most acclaimed bands of the 2000s.

The band's aspirations weren't immediately apparent on A.M. Tweedy recruited three former Tupelo band mates to craft an engaging, no-frills blend of twang-encrusted guitar rock and ballads. The album opens in deceptively high spirits, punctuated by clanging booze bottles in "Casino Queen," and then winds down with a bunch of breakup songs cast against a backdrop of aimless small-town life.

Being There instantly announces its more grandiose intentions with the confrontational blast of noise that ushers in "Misunderstood." The 19 tracks are spread across two CDs—a sound aesthetic decision. Each disc functions as a self-contained entity digestible in a single 40-minute sitting. Together, both halves aspire to the nervy sprawl of such double-album predecessors as London Calling and Exile on Main Street, records that forged unified personal statements out of a bewildering variety of styles. The most significant sonic advance since A.M. is the greater prominence accorded the keyboards, with Jay Bennett's army of pianos and organs shading the music in ways that reflect the more nuanced perspective in Tweedy's lyrics. His is a tale of faith—in oneself, in a lover, in rock & roll itself—tested by time and distance, but it's the accomplished music that ultimately justifies the album's epic scope.

Summerteeth marks another progression, with Wilco shifting toward more elaborate studio creations that blend guitars, drums, and a thrift-shop array of vintage keyboards. The songs themselves chronicle a relationship that takes some sickening turns; the morbid tone of the lyrics ("She begs me not to hit her") contrast with the layered pop-friendly arrangements.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became a cause célèbre when it was rejected by Wilco's Reprise label for its lack of commercial potential, eventually surfacing nearly a year after its completion to become the band's fastest-selling album. To be sure, Foxtrot sounds a galaxy removed from the pop-friendly innocence of A.M. It creates tension by merging opposites: the ingratiating melodies of pop and the chaos of noise, the reassuring strum of an acoustic guitar and the discomforting hum of radio static, the warmth of Tweedy's voice and the icy swirl of lost-in-space keyboards. Yet it hangs together thanks to the brilliant sequencing, a world unto itself that rewards repeat visits.

A Ghost Is Born backs off from the elaborate studio maneuvers of Foxtrot for a live-in-the-studio approach built on stately mid-tempo pop songs and skronky guitar solos. Exploring themes of identity and self-definition, Tweedy often prefers to let his guitar do the talking, peppering the 10-minute trance-rocker "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" with spastic fills and bombastic power chords. Though not quite as cohesive as its predecessor, Ghost finds Wilco pursuing new avenues of expression. The most radical of these is the droning 12-minute instrumental coda to "Less Than You Think," which suggests Wilco's response to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.

Wilco's streak of great studio albums continued with Sky Blue Sky, their highest-charting record to date. Longtime touring guitarist Nels Cline joined the band full-time and Wilco's tunes were improved by his ability to play with both a skronky, avant-garde sensibility and a gorgeous, effortless lyricism. "Impossible Germany" remains one of their finest songs, a litling country ballad that morphs into a twin-guitar-powered monster, as if Jerry Garcia was jamming with Television's Tom Verlaine. Tweedy, who had just overcome an addiction to painkillers, sounds revitalized as well: "Hate It Here," which compares heartbreak to the banality of everyday chores, features some of his most sharply observed lyrics. The fantastic live album Kicking Television shows just what a powerhouse the band is in concert.

Wilco (The Album) is the sound of a band very comfortable in its own skin. "One Wing" soars like a long-lost George Harrison cut while the kraut-rocking beast "Bull Black Nova" surges ahead for a breathtaking six-minutes. Even Tweedy, who typically writes brooding lyrics about relationships and mortality, lets down his guard on the jokey title track, a tribute to fans. When he sings "Do you dabble in depression?/ Wilco will love you baby," it's coming from a dude who's overcome his demons and lived to enjoy his swelling fanbase.

For 1998's Mermaid Avenue, British folk-rocker Billy Bragg recruited Wilco to help him dive into an archive of lyrics left behind by the late folk legend Woody Guthrie. Together, they wrote new music for Guthrie's lyrics, which offered a fresh perspective on the earnest Dust Bowl balladeer; Woody, it turns out, was every bit as lusty, fallible, and funny as the deportees, migrant laborers, and hobos he portrayed in song. The performances on Mermaid Avenue brim with in-the-moment playfulness ("Walt Whitman's Niece"), radiant wistfulness ("California Stars"), and staggering poignancy ("One by One"); it's a watershed.

The sequel, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, plays down Guthrie's playful leer in favor of his snarl. It blasts the verbal buckshot; the agit-punk Bragg wails Guthrie's "All You Fascists," taking obvious relish in spitting out what was once the nastiest of the f-words as Wilco's Jay Bennett plays along with rootin', tootin' harmonica. On "Meanest Man," Bragg stumbles through junkyard percussion worthy of Tom Waits while staving off the hellhounds in his head. But once again it's the more personally expansive songs that bring us closer to Guthrie's inner world, and Wilco's. "Secret of the Sea" wrestles with the unanswerable over a small army of guitars, their tonal centers shifting from the Far East to George Harrison's All Things Must Pass to Nashvillein the space of a few bars. Best of all is the six-minute "Remember the Mountain Bed," a tour de force without a chorus that ends more quietly than it began, with Bennett and bassist John Stirratt's whispered harmony briefly, almost subliminally shadowing Tweedy's husky baritone, as though the ghost of Guthrie himself had slipped into the recording session.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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