Wilco often specialize in uncomfortable comfort music: Seventies-style melodies submerged in dark, abstract sounds and cloudy emotions. But their eighth disc manages to be both upbeat and experimental – as casually chooglin' as 2007's Sky Blue Sky and as textured and expansive as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. There are avant-guitar freakouts, roots-tuggin' jams and gold-spun pastorals like "Rising Red Lung," where Jeff Tweedy sums up the record's vibe: "I found a fix for the fits. . . ./It's buried under the hiss/It glows/Like a powerful smile/A car radio dial."
If the music seems everywhere at once, Tweedy is writing more directly than ever. "Dawned on Me" recalls the Podunk power pop of their 1995 debut, A.M., with offhand whistling and a skywriting chorus about how awesome it is to realize he still loves his wife: "I'm calling/Just to let you know/It dawned on me," Tweedy sings in a lyric that could've been pasted from a real conversation on a tour bus. "We're too old for clichés," he sings on another love song, the George Harrisonesque "Open Mind."
Wilco are releasing The Whole Love on their own label, dBpm, underscoring their vaunted artistic independence; they're pretty much the only band from the Nineties this side of Radiohead who keep experimenting and growing their audience at the same time. The Whole Love seems like a celebration of that freedom, with songs that roam happily all over the place: "Capitol City" is a country waltz with bits of Dixieland clarinet, "Sunloathe" sounds like the Beatles if they were still together in 1974, and the vaguely psychedelic folk-pop title track takes Simon and Garfunkel's 59th Street Bridge down to the Small Faces' Itchycoo Park for a summer-breezin' picnic.
It all suggests a jam band a hipster could love, with every note so tasty and rich you need to hit the gym after a couple of listens. Thankfully, noise-loving guitarist Nels Cline and the restless rhythm section of bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche make sure some of the soft moments aren't too snuggly. That hey-what-the-hell casualness extends to Tweedy, whose tendency to start each of his singer-songwriter meditations with the same "Dust in the Wind" chord progression is almost confrontationally laid back. You gotta hand it to a guy who can sing "Sadness is my luxury" (on "Born Alone") and sound like he's takin' it easy rollin' down Ventura Highway.
Nowhere on The Whole Love does Tweedy luxuriate in more sadness, or find more hard-won satisfaction, than on the last track, "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)," 12 minutes of John Fahey-meets-Tortoise, NPR segue velvet. Tweedy sings about religion, depression and coming to terms with his dead dad: "I can hear those bells/ Spoken and gone/I feel relief, I feel well." It's the Midwestern post-rock version of the scene in Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner says, "Dad? You wanna have a catch?" It's powerful, mind-reeling stuff, if you have the heart for it. Few bands have the grapes to go for something so softly grand. Even fewer have earned the freedom.
Listen to "Born Alone":