Wilco (photo courtesy of Anti, PR)
dBpm / Anti- Records
The world of Wilco — created by Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Mikael Jorgensen, Nels Cline and Pat Sansone — is one of innovative delights. The band's sound is virtually everything all the time, yet like nothing that has come before. Twisting together classic, alternative and progressive rock with avant-garde jazz, folk and country (plus a kitchen sink or two thrown in for good measure), Wilco has managed to stay true to its core while never being predictable.
After twenty-two years and a myriad of line-up changes, Wilco continues to thrive on Schmilco, which is the band's tenth studio album (not counting collaborations with Billy Bragg, a live album, compilations and side projects). Schmilco comes slightly more than a year after the band’s last release, Star Wars, with a title that is perhaps a nod to Nilsson Schmilsson from the late Harry Nilsson. Although Schmilco and Star Wars were recorded at the same time, there is a fairly obvious line separating the two. Think of them as siblings — closely related, but with distinctive personalities.
Despite the playful title and album artwork (courtesy of Spanish artist Joan Cornellà), much of the material on Schmilco is personal, meditative and introspective. Yet even with the insecurity, personal frustration and doubt expressed in the lyrics, it’s also a cathartic album, in a way that can only come from the mind of the band’s songwriter and frontman, Jeff Tweedy. In “Happiness” Tweedy sings, “My mother says I’m great. And it always makes me sad. I don’t think she’s being nice. I really think she believes that.” There is no joy in his voice, just contemplation of the issue at hand and the realization that, “Happiness depends on who you blame.”
That song provides a snapshot of the mood permeating most of Schmilco, which feels different from Star Wars from its first note. While Star Wars opened with the angular dissonance of “EKG,” Schmilco introduces itself with “Normal American Kids” — a soft, acoustic folk ballad of self-doubt. The stripped-down, slightly country-ish vibe continues with the relaxed, “If I Ever Was A Child,” where Tweedy is accompanied by drummer Glenn Kotche’s use of brushes, along with tasteful touches of electric guitar and organ. As on the majority of the new songs, Tweedy sings in a gentle, late night voice as if he’s alone with his thoughts and thinking aloud.
The band’s experimental nature isn’t absent on Schmilco. “Someone To Lose,” the album’s upbeat epicenter, includes bright blasts of power-pop guitar that ride John Stirratt’s grooving bassline. “Common Sense” opens the door for the avant-garde, but the adventure — featuring Nels Cline’s frenzied guitar — remains restrained, keeping with the overall feel of the album. “Quarters” is a folk song at its core, but as drifting bits of electric guitar hover in the background, the song suddenly morphs into a completely different, psychedelicized acoustic melody.
With Schmilco, Wilco delivers yet another album that lives up to the anticipation created by their previous work. They remain mainstream innovators who are brilliant at marrying adventurous melodies, progressive instrumentation and thought provoking, cerebral lyrics, and they've set the stage for the band's next sonic adventure. We might not know where Wilco will take us, but we can be assured that it will be one hell of a ride.