Have Wilco ever come up with a better song than “Impossible Germany”? For the first three minutes, it’s a mysterious soft-rock ballad with jazzy chords filtered through stoner-country guitar licks, like some lost outtake from Steely Dan’s Katy Lied. Jeff Tweedy mumbles about isolation in his most beaten-up-by-life voice. Then, in the final three minutes, it builds into a twin-guitar epic, with Tweedy in the left speaker reinventing Fleetwood Mac circa Bare Trees, and Nels Cline in the right speaker reinventing Television circa Adventure. There’s no noise, none of the spazzed-out distortion of the last few Wilco records: It’s peaceful on the surface, demented underneath. After a hundred listens or so, you start to notice that even the lyrics, not always a Wilco specialty, are pretty excellent. Even if mellowed-out guitar jammery isn’t your cup of tea, respect is due — this is the kind of song nobody ever gets right.
If everything on Sky Blue Sky were as amazing as “Impossible Germany,” there would be nothing to complain about — but what fun would that be? Wilco are the kind of band that really likes to make people complain. So the Chicago boys have done another scandalous about-face, retreating to the light, sweetly zonked country rock we all thought they got out of their system years ago. The soft sound of the album will befuddle some of the fans they picked up with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. With guitar whiz Cline on board, they seemed to be heading in a more rocking direction — for many of us, the 2005 live album Kicking Television was their finest hour. Cline’s presence is more low-key here, but so is everything else about the album. Sky Blue Sky (great title — Allman Brothers via Laurie Anderson) is understated, erratic, often beautiful, disarmingly simple music; it really sounds like six guys playing in a room, and no doubt that’s how they wanted it.
“Either Way” sets the tone straight off — it’s a slight ditty with the acoustic-guitar intro from “Blowin’ in the Wind.” There’s a string section, plus a really, really terrible guitar solo that sounds like a Pat Metheny clone grooving to the Weather Channel, which makes sense, since Tweedy is singing about the sun, clouds, etc. The vocal is so straightforward you wonder if Tweedy’s putting you on, but he’s not — he’s reveling in clarity and simplicity, from the vaudeville piano roll “Walken” to the hippie-gospel hymn “What Light.” He’s obviously been listening to a lot of Grateful Dead lately (“You Are My Face”) as well as Stephen Malkmus (“Shake It Off”). The influence of Jim O’Rourke, who helped Wilco discover noise on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is noticeably absent, down to a couple of orchestral arrangements. Some of the 1970s soft-rock tropes work (dig that Basement Tapes organ), others don’t (Lord, stomp that wood block). The guitar freakouts are great, especially the two-minute Crazy Horse eruption in the middle of “You Are My Face” and the woozy coda to “Side With the Seeds,” which sounds like Robert Fripp doodling over Pavement’s “Stop Breathing.”
As you’d expect, there are some mighty sleepy moments, mostly pushed to the middle of the album (“Please Be Patient With Me”). But the band’s light touch adds the right emotional timbre to the music. If Tweedy’s trying hard to sound clear and simple, he has good reason — a few stray lyrics refer to his harrowing rehab experience, and he ends with “On and On and On,” a touching tune for his widowed father. Indeed, the smooth style of Sky Blue Sky, especially the emphasis on mellow crowd-pleasers, could be a twelve-stepper’s apology to his fans, band and muse for past dramatics. But more likely Tweedy’s too smart and too sincere to fake a turmoil he isn’t feeling these days — he holds these songs together with steady nerves and a satisfied mind.