Recording of August 2022: Cruel Country

Wilco: Cruel Country
dBpm (24/96 stream, Qobuz; also available as 2CD, 2LP). 2022. Jeff Tweedy, Tom Schick, prods.; Tom Schick, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

The cover art for Wilco's finely hewn double album Cruel Country resembles a hand-stitched doily or the kind of patch you might have seen sewn onto the back pocket of a pair of vintage faded jeans circa 1978. It's appropriate: Wilco's music has long been a patchwork, piecing together the scope and potential of American music for the band's nearly 30 years.

Cruel Country, Wilco's latest, is anything but cruel: it's a long-form love letter to an American artform, specifically the one described by the title's second word.

The songs and sounds produced by this Chicago-bred sextet over many concerts and albums have often approached country music, even caressed it. On this album, Wilco's 12th made in the studio, frontman/singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy has doubled down on country, capitalizing the "C." "Wilco," Tweedy said, quoted in the press notes, "is digging in and calling it Country." Country, Tweedy added, "has always been the ideal place to comment on what most troubles my mind."

Tweedy and longtime coproducer Tom Schick, who also engineered these sessions, have filled the 77 minutes of Cruel Country with some of the best of what has come to be called Americana: a Sweetheart of the Workingman's Highway 61 Rodeo blend for the 21st century. Cruel Country is also a blend in a different way: Before they started recording, the Wilco camp decided to corral the six bandmembers face to face, recording live off the floor at The Loft in Chicago, the band's own studio.

Wilco hasn't recorded this way, at least not to this extent, since May 2007's Sky Blue Sky (footnote 1). Each track was culled from live takes with minimal overdubs: as Tweedy colloquialized, "together with a leaky drum booth, and no baffles" (just the way I happen to like it, truth be told). This eyeball-to-eyeball studio intimacy leaks from Cruel Country's every pore.

Cruel Country feels like an album that should be experienced on vinyl, but supply-chain issues pushed back the two-LP version into the fall. Fortunately, the 24/96 Qobuz stream is a fine way to experience the double album's 21 songs. (Cruel Country is a double album in both common physical formats; on streaming services, it's presented as 21 consecutive tracks.)

The opening track, "I Am My Mother," sets the sonic table. Tweedy's loose-strung acoustic guitar riffs burrow in the right channel, Mikael Jorgensen's piano and Pat Sansome's counter electric guitar lines play over to the left, Nels Cline's lap steel nestled a little farther back and on the right. Tweedy's reedy vocals ride the open trail up the middle: "I've kicked the can / Into a dead end," he intones, but the accompanying music is anything but dull or withering.

In "Ambulance," resigned breaths, rustling instruments, and fidgeting bodies lay the groundwork before the opening note-picking and acoustic guitar chording. The slight echo on Tweedy's vocals draws attention to the production, but his whispery, soothing voice still comes across as intimate, like he's leaned in close to share a confession.

More than one extended jam sequence suggests how these Country songs are likely to be presented live—Wilco is already touring the album—for example, the intertwined noodling in the middle of "Birds Without a Tail / Base of My Skull" and the last two-plus minutes of "Many Worlds," which slow-builds until it fades away. It's easy to imagine tracks like these extending far longer live. Around the time this issue hits newsstands, Wilco will be playing Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The ironically dubbed, palate-cleansing "Falling Apart (Right Now)" is purebred midnight rockabilly, while "A Lifetime to Find" features a dobro solo from Cline, plus Tweedy's self-admonition, "O' Jeff / Don't obsess." (It's too late for that advice, I'm thinking.) The bleakness of the album's closer, "The Plains," accentuates the cruelty of our century—which is where the first C-word in the title comes in—with rushing wind, evoking tumbleweeds swirling around the band.

An epic treatise on America, the good and the grim, Cruel Country offers a rowdy cavalcade of homegrown sounds captured live in the studio, all nice and cocoon-like. Wilco's six country gentlemen achieve a sort of spiritual/artistic phase lock, gathering the sonic and historical threads of our at-risk American fabric into a quilt that couldn't help but make their mamas proud.—Mike Mettler

Footnote 1: Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was also a Stereophile Recording of the Month, in June 2002.—Ed.

Anton's picture

I’m a fan boy, so it was a ‘head nodding’ review!

Glotz's picture

Is there a date for the vinyl yet?!

Kinda starting to freak out a bit... lol.

barty's picture

...are one of the best end-of-first-album / beginning-of-second album duos I've heard in a long time.