Monday, May 21, 2007

Sky Blue Sky - soulful rock 'n' roll glory

Sky Blue Sky is Jeff Tweedy’s most soulful batch of tunes, yet the record unquestioningly will go down as the “Nels Cline” Wilco album. The new lead guitarist is prevalent in every track, at every turn and twist in the music and completely in step with Tweedy throughout, giving the singer and songwriter a freedom he’s never had before in recording.

Critically (and in the blogs), the record is discussed overall as mellow, classic-rock sounding, safe and (for those who can’t live without bashing good music) dull. Bullshit. Sky Blue Sky may be Wilco’s most subtle and most layered record, but it’s also full of tension and mobility. Where before there was swagger, now there’s smarts; where there was noise, now there’s tunefulness; where there was angst, there’s now a songwriter navigating his struggles with wisdom.

Wilco was never anywhere near as “experimental” as they got labeled in regards to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, mostly by people who were new to the band. Nor was the band ever as “country” as previously labeled, by the people who ignored them until YHF.

Tweedy says as much in an interview with Pitchfork, a publication which then turned around as if it hadn’t been listening one bit and panned the album, dismissively calling it “dad-rock” in a review I consider the publication’s shark-jumping moment, losing the last bit of relevance on the road from “take it with a grain of salt” to “don’t even bother reading.”

The one moment on the album that nails me to the wall – and hits the mark so clearly in defining the album’s strengths – is the latter two thirds or so of “Impossible Germany.” The song is just swept up by its own guitar solos, an intertwining dance of Cline and Tweedy, two couldn’t-be-more-different styles hopscotching around each other in joy and kindness. The song conjures both night and day, childhood and today. It’s truly a conversation, drenched in amazing emotions, always balancing each other out. The guitars are filled with motion, creating a spinning sensation and an exploration that embarks and retreats, over and over. I can’t begin to pinpoint a meaning in the lyrics overall (Impossible Germany / Unlikely Japan ?? Is there some WWII connection?), but toward the end, when Tweedy sings “This is what love is for / To be out of place / Gorgeous and alone / Face to face,” he captures that same sensation, a sort of necessary tension that holds life together.

The music is so compelling and Tweedy not only brings his best singing voice after quitting the smokes, but has reached a new level in terms of creating incredible melodies. So in that sense it’s disappointing that some of Tweedy’s lyrics this time around are, if not his least evocative and least insightful (watch the Sunken Treasure DVD for that joke), definitely his least adventurous.
There’s no “I dreamed about killing you again last night” or “a fixed bayonet through the great Southwest to forget here” or even a sly “You’re gonna make me spill my beer” to be found, but it seems like Tweedy is perfectly content in the simpler images.
“Shake It Off” starts with Tweedy describing how the “Sunlight angles on / A wooden floor at dawn.” “A ceiling fan is on / Chopping up my dreams,” he continues, but the song, lyrically at least, never gets much more interesting.
Anyone in search of an overall artistic statement on the album would do best to zero in on the second-to-last song, the terrific and catchy “What Light.”

To me perhaps the thing that has defined Wilco most as a band is the fact that while no album sounds quite like another, each contains at least one song that would mesh perfectly with any other album (a contention I’ve made before: A.M. – Dash 7; Being There – Misunderstood, at least; Summerteeth – How To Fight Lonliness; YHF – Poor Places; A Ghost Is Born – The Late Greats, which is absolutely the most Wilco of all Wilco songs).

“What Light” holds that position here, an even-tempoed rocker that starts jangly strummed 12-string acoustic guitar and in perfect measure adds three other guitars, piano and organ, a sound that’s never too much and never too little. Tweedy opens with a stanza that’s daring in its simplicity, a purposeful and unapologetic bit of advice that could easily double as a self-fulfilling mantra he built the record around: “If you feel like singing a song / And you want other people to sing along / Just sing what you feel / Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong.”

The repeated chorus in “Leave Me Like You Found Me” sounds like it’s coming from somebody whose been shoved under a microscope and from Tweedy, it could be a plea to just about anybody – perhaps spurred by his band’s new found place as Rock’s Most Scrutinize, or leftover from his scrutinized trip to rehab, or his epic record-company battles, band-mate exists, or even the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo.

Other highlights are the laid-back, almost funky groove of “I Hate It Here,” the jaunty “Walken” and “You Are My Face,” which musically sounds closest to the Mermaid Avenue sessions and lyrically like Tweedy picked a little bit out of ol’ Woody’s pocket: “Why is there no breeze / no currency of leaves.”

Most songs build and turn, shifting instruments flawlessly, with a sound much more like a live performance than they’ve ever nailed on record. Which is definitely encouraging, after listening to how the live show gave new life to the A Ghost is Born songs on Kicking Television.

By biggest (and really only) complaint is the absence of “Is That the Thanks I Get,” which showed up in a Tweedy solo version on the Live in the Northwest DVD. Well, I’ve heard a full-band version, last summer on Conan O’Brien’s show, and it was incredible. It’s a tune Tweedy wrote for Solomon Burke to sing on the the Don’t Give Up On Me album and I love the spare version. But backed by the rest of his Wilco mates, the song comes alive as a bouncy soul groove, with a hooky sing-along chorus and chocked full of guitars, piano and organ fills. It’s the same direction I see Tweedy going with the Sky Blue Sky songs, so I hope a new recording turns up somewhere.

Now, I’ll repeat a little drill I did in writing about A Ghost Is Born, listing the opening lyrics from each Wilco album, chronologically backwards:

“When I sat down on the bed next to you / You started to cry”
“I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue”
“The way things go / You get so low / Struggle to find your skin”
“When you're back in your old neighborhood / The cigarettes taste so good”
“You always wanted more time / To do what you / Always wanted to do”

As I pointed out then, it’s full of I’s and You’s, all infused with this mobility, a certain sort of tension there that bore out as the albums wore on. There’s always been a sort of struggle that has defined Tweedy’s lyrics up until now. And while it’s certainly not gone, this is the first time it’s really matched by contentment, or wisdom, or maybe best described as a sly “So it goes” attitude.

So when Tweedy open Sky Blue Sky with “Maybe the sun will shine today / The clouds will blow away / Maybe I won’t feel so afraid / I will try to understand / Either way,” he really sounds like a new man in a sense.

In interviews he’s said just as much: that this was the easiest Wilco album to make, the most collaborative recording process, overall the simplest and most fruitful experience. I love the notion that music making doesn’t have to involve tremendous stress or heartbreak or struggle, or that songs don’t have to come out of a dark place to relate something important. Why Wilco has been dinged some for this album I’ll never understand – it’s beautiful, but not achingly or hauntingly so, just comfortable whether it’s spare or full in sound, with a core of emotion that’s neither dark or soaring, just occasionally content. There’s no doubt the new players, particularly Cline, have pushed this band musically, and that they made perhaps a simpler and subtler record than they’re capable of just means to me that it was what the songs called for. And the songs are tremendous, with a soulful rock ‘n’ roll glory throughout that no other band today can match.


Gabriel said...

Best review I've read of the album yet. It's obvious that you're a fan and you're listening to it as a fan, and that's alright by me because so am I. I hate reading reviews of Sky Blue Sky by people who would rather be listening to something else - they never have the patience to actually appreciate this record.

I think your analysis of the opening lines is a perfectly concise way to illustrate the shift in Tweedy's songwriting. Though he may be reluctant to say it, it's obvious that this album sounds as clean as he wants to feel now that he's out of rehab. I think people who interpret this album as a "new direction" have missed the point - Wilco never really had a "direction" to begin with; every album has been sonically different from the last, though the cores have mostly stayed the same. I like their surprises.

Gabriel said...

Also, out of my love for the phrase "Currency of Leaves", I decided to google it, and found that he may be referencing a poem by Norbert Ruebsaat called "The Blind Man", where he talks about a lack of wind (like Tweedy's "Why is there no breeze?" line) and then mentions the blind man's "currency of leaves".

You can check it out at: