Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
May 4, 2002
YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT, Wilco (Nonesuch)
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a work of art. It’s hardly surprising the record company didn’t like it.
The story goes that when Wilco delivered their fourth album to Reprise, the Time-Warner subsidiary that signed them seven years ago, the group were informed it had no commercial potential. Resisting suggestions that they might remix it or consider adding a few radio-oriented tunes, the band bought out of their contract. After almost a year in the wilderness, their product was purchased by boutique label Nonesuch, whose A&R department was happy to release it as is. The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle-style irony is that Nonesuch is another subsidiary of Time-Warner.
At it most extreme, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sounds like rock deconstructed; a roots Radiohead. Like Oxford’s finest on Kid A and Amnesiac, Wilco haven’t changed their essential being so much as used the laboratory of the recording studio to find new ways of revealing their identity.
In “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” everything that would normally drive a four-square rock song seems to have been pulled out of the mix, leaving Jeff Tweedy’s flat, close-miked vocal amidst the kind of ephemera - glockenspiels, crazy backwards drum-fills, buzzing pitch-bent keyboards – that one expects to find as texture rather than substance. But in this boldly playful mix (by sonic maverick and fellow Chicagoan Jim O’Rourke, whose signature is unmistakable) the aural landscape is in constant flux; every so often one glimpses a horizon of hard-strummed acoustic guitars, before the world turns topsy-turvy again. Or it might be the reverse: an electronic substrata running throughout the disc, rising up through the cracked pop veneer.
The first half of the 50-minute disc is undoubtedly the most difficult, moving through “Kamera” and “Radio Cure”, which exploit the type of murky lo-fi guitar sound associated with the Clean, to the dense, provocatively-titled “War On War” and “Ashes Of American Flags”. Simple maths will tell you that these songs predate September 11, but their dark hues and ominous imagery are like its dissonant echo. “I would like to salute the ashes of American flags…” sings Jeff Tweedy in his numbest tones, followed by a minute or so of excoriating electronica.
Though Tweedy’s disjoint and impressionistic lyrics could apply to any number of scenarios, there’s an overwhelming theme of lost innocence that resonates both with the group’s increasingly complex music and the America in which they find themselves today.
The lightest, brightest moments are saved for the second half. The turning point is “Jesus, etc.”, a patch-up plea underscored by a weeping string arrangement gorgeous enough to change anyone’s mind, which opens the door to “I’m the Man Who Loves You” with its jocular grunting horns, and the almost-disco “Heavy Metal Drummer”. Yet even in the latter – the one song on the disc that is honestly funny - the album’s theme is writ large: “I miss the innocence I’ve known”, sings Tweedy in his most wistfully melodic tones, “playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.”
Wilco may have other things to get nostalgic about in future. The completion of the album saw the departure of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who contributed much of the random colour. (“A record only has one centre”, Tweedy reportedly said, before firing him). Drummer Ken Coomer had already left during recording, replaced by the wonderfully Beefherartian Glen Kotche. But whatever the personal cost, Wilco have achieved a high-water mark with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s rich songwriting and inventive production should be an ear-opener for anyone who still has them pegged as No Depression poster boys. And in the spirit of the very best records, commercial or otherwise, they made it as if they had no choice.