Recording of June 2007: Sky Blue Sky

WILCO: Sky Blue Sky
Nonesuch 131388 (CD). 2007. Wilco, prods.; TJ Doherty, eng.; Jim Scott, mix; Bob Ludwig, mastering. AAD? TT: 51:18
Performance *****
Sonics ****

For some Wilco fans, the response to a new Wilco album has become predictable: On first listen, it just doesn't grab you. Like looking out the window of a speeding car, it all seems to run together. But when you stop, go back, and walk along that same stretch of road (though when it comes to this band, tortured path may be a better metaphor), details emerge and deepen, until you're suddenly confronted with intricacies and sly details aplenty.

The saga of Wilco and their diverse music has become something special to behold. What is it they play, exactly? Good question, and therein lies some of the fascination. A Pitchfork review of their last album, the live Kicking Television, called them a "drinking man's avant jam band." Actually, the band's current sound contains flecks of all the flights of fancy that founder and leader Jeff Tweedy has engaged in over the years: the alt country of the long-gone but epically influential Uncle Tupelo; the pop of his first Wilco album, A.M.; the Brian Wilsonisms of Summerteeth; the stop-time future rock of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; and the rough, cranky chunkiness of Wilco's last studio album, A Ghost Is Born. There's also a folky vibe that pervades much of the band's studio work—partially due to the close miking of Tweedy's voice—and an orchestral feel to the way the arrangements unfold, and to the proceedings in general. Polarities like soothing and surprising, raucous and intimate, are what make this music so compelling.

Now, in their seventh studio album, as has happened on several past efforts, Wilco's many creative threads have coalesced into yet another masterwork of modern rock. Sky Blue Sky is the sound of a band confidently at the top of its game. What's immediately apparent is that the mood is more relaxed and soulful. One trend that has emerged in Ghost and the new record is that there's now a process: make the studio album, perhaps before the songs are fully fledged, then take the material out on the road and push the songs until they flap their wings and leave the nest. Sky Blue Sky is much softer than the live shows supporting it will be. It's easy even for casual fans to hear how songs like "Impossible Germany" will become much larger, louder, and longer in concert.

What's made all this possible is that Tweedy now leads a sextet that's stable and focused, every member a brilliant, virtuosic musician. Together only since A Ghost Is Born, they've become almost like one of Miles Davis' small groups—a powerhouse of ideas and complementary talents. What's key is that each is also a texturalist. Whether it's bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche on every song, or guitarists Nels Cline and Pat Sansone on full-on guitar shreds like "Impossible Germany" (look out for that one in concert) or "Side with the Seeds," or keyboardist Mikael Jorgenson on the closer, "On and On and On," each adds a forceful layer. Best of all, everyone is clearly on the same page as far as where the band is going, and its emotional and intellectual aims.

But as Tweedy goes, so goes Wilco. Throughout Sky Blue Sky, the guy who looked insufferable and self-serving in the 2002 film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart seems uncommonly content and, for the moment—dare I say it?—at peace. His screaky vocals, a sore point for some fans, are easily the best he's ever done. And while keeping his rock-star cred required Tweedy to be ragged and croaking on the live Kicking Television, the new album shows how expressive his rasp can be. Often here he's in soft, confessional mode—as in the title cut, when he sings, "I should be satisfied I survived / It's good enough for now"; or in the album's tender surprise, "Please Be Patient with Me," when he offers, "How can I warn you my tongue turns to dust / lack of disgust / It doesn't mean that I don't care / It means I'm partially there." Even the semi-shouted repeated chorus line and title of the album's loudest tune, the stop/start "Shake It Off," suggests that Wilco's maestro is in a good place.

Tweedy's always had a latent Lennon streak, and here it's loosed in the Philly Soul–flavored "Hate It Here," where he asks, "What am I gonna do when I run out of shirts to fold / What am I gonna do when I run out of lawn to mow / What am I gonna do if you don't come home / Tell me, what am I gonna do." Cline's sweet George Harrison fills in this number are a wonder to behold. Country rock gets a nod in the pedal-steel–filled "What Light." And then comes "Walken," an Allman Brothers/Dr. John country honk with an amusing strut and hilarious low guitar riffs that pop in and out.

By the end of this concept album that isn't, this rock opera that won't be, the cumulative effect is intense and persuasive. You're sucked in almost without knowing it. Not sure what you've heard, you have to go back over and over again, marveling at the varied richnesses that rise from these songs with each successive listen.—Robert Baird