After the amiable twang of their 1995 debut A M and the more ambitious and conceptual rock’n’roll of the 1996s Be there, Wilco went straight pop on 1998s summer teethswapping the pedalboard for an orchestra and healing beach boys like their new Gram Parsons. Country, even alt.country, was far too restrictive, too conservative both musically and culturally, for many bands identified with this movement, and some of the biggest bands – The old 97, Joe Henry, The Jayhawks – played with power pop and art rock. Few, however, have gone as far or as strong as Wilcowho in the 2000s embraced noise and krautrock to capture something essential about America at the turn of the century.
It’s probably a coincidence that the upcoming 20th anniversary of Wilco’s 2001 breakout album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is preceded by a new studio album that returns to their country roots. Although it’s still far from anything coming out of Nashville at the moment, cruel country is consciously rooted in classic country music and early folk – two styles that have influenced by Jeff Tweedy first music 30 years ago, first with Uncle Tupelo then with Wilco. Still, it’s not that far off from their recent Ode to Joy, in part because their idea of the country is broad. Emphasizing acoustic instruments and relatively austere arrangements, it encompasses CSNY harmonies on “A Life to Find”the two-beat rhythms that underpin “Falling Apart (Right Now)”, the string group pinches “Sad Kind of Way”and even the bucolic psychedelia of the eight-minute epic “Many Worlds”.
With good reason, Wilco members naturally looked to the country. cruel country grew out of informal jams at the Loft in Chicago, the musicians picking up instruments they had recently neglected: acoustic guitars, pedal steel, dobro. There are still electric guitars, but they are played more in the style The Buckaroos that Box Where Nilsson. Because they found themselves obsessed with this particular palette, they pushed aside the more “traditional” ones. Wilco album they had made and dedicated themselves to pursuing that very particular sound. And because Tweedy was incredibly prolific during the pandemic, they ended up with enough songs for a double album.
cruel country sounds like a band playing for and for themselves first and foremost, which means there’s a searing energy to these songs, even the slower, sparser ones like “The Universe” and “Tonight is the day”. It’s invigorating to hear these musicians wondering how their instruments fit into the songs and rethinking how Wilco Do what Wilco Is. “The Empty Condor” crawl on by Michael Jorgenson muted piano rhythm, which adds a sense of menace and movement to the verses. The song is all back and forth: the lightness of by Nels Cline the guitar solo is canceled by Tweedy holding his notes just a little longer than his voice can go. This friction is all the more disturbing because it is so discreet.
No one in the band seems to question their role as much as Tweedy himself, whose voice is nuanced and expressive – deeply sensitive to the subtleties of emotion his lyrics convey. It’s clearer about the stopping of time “Ambulance”, a harrowing story of a near-death experience. Its fractured imagery sits uncomfortably in this rural setting:”Once by chance I made a friend in an ambulancehe sings over a delicately chosen line of bluegrass guitar. “I was half man, half broken glass”. It sounds like someone returning from a brief stopover in the afterlife, and the placidity of the music evokes the painful fragility of life.
Of course, “country” on cruel country does not only refer to a musical framework, but to a broader idea, thorny with political and cultural implications. Wilco explores this duality most explicitly on the title track, making even the dissent of Ode to Joy its temporary. This song is angrier, driven by relatable outrage at a particularly American divisiveness: “I love my country, stupid and cruel, red white and blue”, Tweedy exclaims. This is performative justice, but Wilco complicate it by getting involved in the ambient discord. When Tweedy sing”All you have to do is sing in the choir,” it’s easy to imagine a red straw man, at least until he adds, “… with meat the end of this statement.
cruel country is such a Wilco album that even diehard fans might wonder if that twang wasn’t there all along. In addition to buying A Mwhich no longer sounds like the band’s least essential album, these 21 songs direct listeners to relatively dark corners of Tweedy’s songwriting career, like the dreamy songs of old on At Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992 (More precisely “I wish my baby was born”listen)) and his folk contributions to the supergroup golden smog (“Please tell my brother”, notably). Moreover, these songs suggest that country music – “a kind of comfort food”, Tweedy said – always informed Wilco’s music, even when the band actively resisted that label. It’s there that underlies the noise Yankee Hotel Foxtrotmigraine jams A ghost is borneven the self-referential jokes about Wilco (The Scrapbook). cruel country is the rare album that elevates all that has come before it – a small miracle for a band 30 years after its run.