Wilco’s seventh studio album is a triumph of determined simplicity by a band that has been running from the obvious for most of this decade. The title is the giveaway. So is the opening gag, “Wilco (The Song),” with its rattling-bones guitar and singer-boss Jeff Tweedy’s assurance, sung like pillow talk, that his combo is good for all that ails you: “Do you dabble in depression?/Is someone twisting a knife in your back?…Wilco will love you, baby.” At times, Wilco (The Album) sounds like the scarring static and cryptic impressionism of 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot never happened. The Seventies-George Harrison sunshine in “You Never Know” and the country-rock clatter of “Sonny Feeling” are closer to Wilco’s Big Star-in-a-barn debut, 1995’s A.M.
The clarity comes at a price. The fear, failure and violence in Tweedy’s lyrics and gently racked singing are as sharply drawn as the baroque-Zombies flourishes in “Deeper Down” and the sweet sexual tangle of voices in “You and I,” Tweedy’s duet with the Canadian singer Feist. That is literally blood splattered across the thickening garage-guitar stutter of “Bull Black Nova”: “It’s in my hair/It’s on my clothes,” Tweedy sings like a mounting-guilt mantra. But what is most striking about the restraint here is the elegance and defiance packed inside. “One Wing” is spacious heartbreak with a fish-hook chorus and guitars that loop and swoop. And the fierce, repeated devotion in “I’ll Fight” comes at you with the minimal insistent drive of Bob Dylan’s “I Want You.” If Top 40 radio had any room for rock, “I’ll Fight” might be Wilco’s breakthrough hit. Instead, it’s just another great way to say they love you.