BY BROCK LANDERS
Wilco’s new album The Whole Love, the first they have self-released on their own dBpm Records label, shows a band that, nearly 20 years into their career, is comfortable in its own skin. In stark contrast to the restless boundary pushing and searching for identity on earlier albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, The Whole Love is the statement of a band who know who they are and what they can do. Much like their last recorded effort, 2009’s Wilco (The Album), but to an even greater extent here, The Whole Love finds Wilco as expert craftsmen, aware of their abilities, the tools in their toolbox, and how to use those tools to the greatest effect.
While this approach shows the width and breath of Wilco’s stylistic palette and serves the individual songs, The Whole Love doesn’t quite cohere as a whole, both thematically and sonically. For those who remember the cohesive artistic statements of Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, this lack of overall thematic unity is slightly jarring. However, this is a minor flaw as, on a song by song basis, The Whole Love is as strong as anything the band has released in the past.
The Whole Love is bookended by it’s two most ambitious and memorable songs, “Art Of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”. “Art Of Almost” starts off as a moody sound collage and slowly builds over it’s seven minutes to an unruly and cathartic guitar squall freakout by lead guitarist Nels Cline.
The ten songs in between merrily shift between styles and tone that run the gamut of Wilco’s eighteen year musical history. The most prominent touchstone is the band’s 1999 album Summerteeth. That record’s sunny pop sound with a dark undercurrent is echoed on half of The Whole Love’s tracks, including the first single “I Might”, in which the song’s driving sixties garage pop is tempered with Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy’s black humored lyrics that state, “It’s alright, you won’t set the kids on fire, Oh but I might.”
The album’s coda is the twelve minute “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend), which is as musically plain and emotionally stark as the album’s opener “Art Of Almost” is complex and enigmatic. Other than small musical textures and embellishments, the song maintains the same simple groove over its entire running time as it details the raw emotional politics of a father and a son. The lyrics were inspired by a real life conversation Tweedy had at a party with the titular “Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend”. Tweedy was reportedly so touched by the naked, emotional honesty related to him by someone he had just met, that he immortalized it in song. What is remarkable for such a long song, is that it never drags or wears out it’s welcome. The listener is so drawn in that the songs nearly fifteen minutes are unnoticeable.
While The Whole Love might not have the artistic gravitas of some of their previous work, it is a superb collection of songs by a songwriter and band at the peak of their powers. If this is the sound of Wilco coasting on their past successes, then this listener is content to ride along.