This is how screwed up the music business is in the early twenty-first century: Last summer, after completing their fourth and best studio album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, alternative-country idols Wilco delivered the record to their label, Reprise. The company reacted as if the music was caked in anthrax, throwing the album back at Wilco and arranging for them to leave the label — immediately. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot now arrives in stores, intact, on Nonesuch. Like Reprise, Nonesuch is a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner. Essentially, the mother firm paid for the album twice. I would love to see one of the suits explain that to the shareholders.
They’re still getting a bargain. One of the most talked-about records of the past year, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was rumored to be crackpot pop — Radiohead’s Kid A dressed in flannel and cow pie. And there is genuine bedlam here. Creepy pianos and whooping synthesizers zoom in and out of the music like pissed-off ghosts. The close-miked vocals of songwriter-guitarist Jeff Tweedy have a strong edge-of-madness air.
But the sum of those parts — mixed by Jim O’Rourke (Sonic Youth, Stereolab) — is really an earthy, moving psychedelia, eleven iridescent-country songs about surviving a blown mind and a broken heart. In Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, keyboard-guitar player Leroy Bach and drummer Glenn Kotche actually bring you the enchanting sound of things falling apart — and gingerly, doggedly coming together again. This is an honest, vivid chaos, and it tells a good story.
The first song, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” is a minutely detailed portrait of the singer as blind drunk. Vibes, drums, piano, fuzz guitar and bicycle bells stumble over one another like they’ve been thrown out of a bar, and Tweedy slurs his metaphors in a heavy whiskey breath: “I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue/I’m hiding out in the big city blinking/What was I thinking when I let go of you?” Later, in “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” Tweedy comes to his senses in a blaze of country-funk joy, packed with dobro, Salvation Army-style brass and outbursts of ham-metal guitar. By the end of the album, Tweedy is pledging himself with confidence (“I’ve got reservations/About so many things/But not about you”), his voice afloat in a shimmering pool of strings, keyboards and bowed cymbal. If you could transcribe the panic, apology and serenity of hard-won love in musical notation, this is exactly how it would sound.
Radio, as a theater of imagination and an emblem of distance and connection, is a recurring theme for Wilco. The cover of their 1995 debut, A.M., was a photo of an old AM/FM receiver. This album’s title comes from the phonetic alphabet used in military communication and shortwave transmission; in “Poor Places,” a woman’s voice repeats the phrase “yankee hotel foxtrot” like an SOS, through a whiteout of guitar distortion. In the pale ballad “Radio Cures,” the throaty strum of a guitar and Tweedy’s yearning vocal are wrapped in ship-to-shore crackle. The effect is at once jarring and warming — a message received over many miles, through harsh conditions.
Tweedy and Wilco have been deviating from alt-country orthodoxy for years: the atonal episodes in “Misunderstood” and “Sunken Treasure” on their second album, 1996’s Being There; the thick, cryptic power pop of 1999’s Summerteeth. It has been a difficult path, too. Wilco lost two of their founding members, drummer Ken Coomer and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, in making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Ironically, this album takes Wilco the long way around, back to the prairie verite of Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy’s now-legendary underground-country band with Jay Farrar. In its pictorial intimacy — the electric guitar in “Kamera,” glistening like rain on a windowpane; the helpless sigh of the strings in “Jesus, etc.” — Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is close kin to Tupelo’s unplugged third LP, March 16-20, 1992. But Wilco’s record is even closer, in ambition and texture, to the garage-art splendor of the Beatles’ White Album. In both cases, the roots always show through, and the noise never gets in the way of the song.
Make no mistake: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a rock & roll record. The rolling beat and gleaming steel guitar of “Pot Kettle Black” should reassure A.M.-era Wilco fans that the band is building on its original strengths, not turning from them. When Wilco toured with these songs across the U.S. last fall, the riffs and choruses bloomed under hot-guitar attack. And in “Heavy Metal Drummer,” three pure-pop minutes of jangly guitar and wibbly synth, Wilco evoke the lust and joy of a distant rock & roll summer. The song is also a brilliant slap at the bookkeeping and cynicism poisoning the music business, which almost deep-sixed this album. “I miss the innocence I’ve known/Playing Kiss covers/Beautiful and stoned,” Tweedy sings in the chorus. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is his sweet revenge.