Wilcoast to Coast: A.M.

This is the first entry in a series, which  will probably become an exhaustive discussion of every Wilco album ever made. I tabbed my lifelong friend and avid Wilco fan, James “Jimi” Williams, to help me out with this project.

Williams’ knowledge of things such as “the current members of Wilco” and the “past members of Wilco” and experience seeing the band live should be an excellent counterweight to my general opinions, broad statements and passing familiarity with each entry in Wilco’s body of work.

I’m dubbing the dialogue between us Wilcoast to Coast, because I cannot resist a good pun. Or a bad pun.

Anyway, as any family fleeing Nazis can tell you, the beginning is a very good place to start, so without further inane chatter, here’s our inane chatter regarding Wilco’s inauspicious debut, A.M.

Jimi: So, to cut right to the chase, Wilco’s first album, A.M.., is, in my opinion at least, their worst album. Not to say it’s a bad album, per se, but it comes across as a rather undistinguished one. But first a little background: A.M.. was the debut album of Jeff Tweedy’s new band after the breakup of seminal alt-country act Uncle Tupelo. Joining Tweedy were several of the more recent recruits of Uncle Tupelo, while the other founding members (guitarist Jay Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn) formed Son Volt. Son Volt’s debut, Trace, and A.M.. were recorded around the same time and released within weeks of each other, leading to much of the discussion around the albums to center on their quality in relation to one another. Trace was declared the winner, and looking back, it’s easy to see why. In the context of Uncle Tupelo, Farrar controlled the tone of the band, while Tweedy was more interested in writing pop songs. Trace was the better album simply because Farrar’s vision for the band was more distinctive than Tweedy’s. However, Wilco was bound to win the war for the same reason: Wilco had a more elastic style and focused on writing actual songs.

Ben: I’ve never really been particularly fond of Farrar’s singing. While he predates the genre by a good bit, his voice reminds me of the bro-grunge bands that sprung up in the late ’90s and early ’00s. I don’t want to evoke Chad Kroeger, but it’s not a drastic leap.

Anyway that’s enough Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt talk, I imagine once we tackle Wilco’s oeuvre, we’ll circle back around. Besides, if we’re going to talk about bands with a Wilco connection, I’d prefer to ramble about The Bottle Rockets.

Personally, I like A.M.. I like some songs on it an awful lot.

I’d agree it’s a lesser Wilco album in retrospect, and I’m sure Jeff Tweedy cringes at the affected twang in hindsight, but I really can’t bash it.

Ignoring the band’s future and past, where do you stand on A.M..?

Also, I’d like to point out that when you isolate a McCartney from his Lennon, you’re going to get some “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’s”

Jimi: I will hear nothing against “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”.

Regarding A.M.., I think it’s borderline impossible to separate it from what came next. The particularly odious Radiohead comparisons that have dogged the band it’s entire career have never felt truer than they do here: this is Wilco’s Pablo Honey. It’s a solid, if undistinguished, power pop album, with some solid songs and a lot of draggy moments.

What sticks out to you regarding this album?

Ben: I can’t help but feel that if A.M.. was made by a band, which didn’t go on to release some of the aughts’ best regarded albums it’d hold up better.

This album slots in with efforts from bands such as Flying Burrito Brothers, Sturgill Simpson and Jamey Johnson as an extremely self-aware country album with a point of view just outside the genre touchstones that influence it. While Wilco’s early output was labeled alt-country, it’s really just ever-so-slightly to the left of the dial. It’s an alt-country mindset with a straightforward country sound.

What strikes me most about this album is its immediacy. A.M..’s pleasures are all pretty much evident on the first listen. Goofy lovelorn lyrics and big hooks–and make no mistake the hooks are great. It’s definitely a sing along album.

(Unrelated point, but Jeff Tweedy has one of the most approachable voices of all-time. I don’t know if there’s ever been a vocal performance on a Wilco album I wouldn’t at least attempt during drunken karaoke.)

The second thing that I’ve always found interesting about A.M., Is that it’s an incredibly earnest country album, and it’s guitar-pop leanings seem prescient in hindsight. I think a Miranda Lambert cover of “Box Full of Letters” could crack the Top 40 tomorrow.

“Pick up the Change” and “That’s Not the Issue” are the two songs mos emblematic of this album. Both are about dysfunctional relationships, as almost all of A.M.. is, both are stupendously catchy and both are unabashed about their country influence and pop intentions.

“That’s Not the Issue” is a mature Mumford and Sons song with sleepy vocals, and you can since the David Allen Coe nod when Tweedy sings, “I you want to call me darlin’, I don’t mind.”

While Tweedy dropping that g isn’t authentic, it’s pretty clear he authentically wanted to craft a pop-country album, and on that front, I’d call A.M.. a success.

What’s your major takeaway from this album, and do you see hints of the characteristics that define a band you would grow to love?

Jimi: Well, the best thing about this album is Wilco’s affability. No matter how dark they got on future albums, they were never anything short of supremely likable. Even this album is almost impossible to hate; it lacks a strong vision, but the songs themselves provide a nonstop sugar high. The opening salvo of “I Must Be High,” “Casino Queen,” and “Box Full of Letters” are some of the best Big Star rips ever. Even the lesser songs are buoyed by excellent pedal steel work from the legendary Lloyd Maines (Natalie’s father).

For my money, there are two classics on the album though, both unlike any other Wilco song. “Passenger Side” is a self-consciously funny take on riding in a car with a horrible driver. “It’s Just That Simple” is a true rarity in the Wilco catalogue: Jeff Tweedy had no part in writing it and doesn’t sing on the track. Both those honors go to bassist and longest-tenured Wilco member John Stirratt, whose plaintive voice fits the simple country ballad better than Tweedy’s would. Of course, on future albums, Tweedy would take control over the band, but for a brief moment he ceded control to a beloved supporting player. (Note: when I saw Wilco play live, “It’s Just That Simple” was on the set list. The moment came across as a touching gesture of friendship, like when the Beatles let Ringo play one of his songs.)

What songs on here would go on your “Wilco’s Greatest Hits?” Can you see the beginnings of the band that would make Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in this enjoyable piece of fluff?

Ben: Thank you for doing the heavy lifting of being the one with things like “a working knowledge of the members of Wilco”.
I would posit “Passenger Side” was intended to work on a deeper level and be a song about observing oneself being out of control and desiring to change. The narrator is on a bender and uncomfortable, having rendered himself a passive observer to his circumstances. Considering Tweedy’s battles with substance, it could be a feeling he wanted to express in song early, long before he sorted everything out, but maybe I’m giving Tweedy too much credit.

“That’s Not the Issue” would go on my Wilco’s Greatest Hits. It’s ridiculously fun, and it shows Wilco operating in a gear that they really didn’t touch again. I’d say it would also be a good idea to pick one of “Box Full of Letters”, “Casino Queen” or “Pick Up the Change” they’re all catchy alt-country diddies. I can’t really say one is more substantive or important than the others.

On their recent greatest hits release, What’s Your 20?, Wilco included “I Must Be High”, “Box Full of Letters”, “Passenger Side” and “Casino Queen”, which seems indulgent. (Spoiler alert: should we actually cover every Wilco album, I am going to task you with identifying your 20.)

I can definitely hear elements of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Dysfunctional relationships and self-medication are both present, and they’re mainstays of the Wilco songbook. In fact, self-medicating in the face of a dysfunctional relationship is the subject of my two of my favorite Wilco songs, so while hardly fully formed, I can definitely parse out elements of what Wilco would come to be.

It’s not perfect, and it’s hardly Wilco’s most meaningful work but after revisiting it, A.M.. is a better listen than I remembered, and it’s filled with joyous pop pleasures.

What songs would you tab for a greatest hits catalog, and do you have some parting sentiments concerning A.M..?

Jimi: I can see pulling four songs from A.M.. for a greatest hits package, actually. Perhaps more than any other Wilco album, this one begs for a critical rehabilitation the most (give or take a Sky Blue Sky). Unlike, say, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost Is Born, this one lives and dies on the strength of its individual songs. It makes sense to pull six or seven of its strongest tracks and recontextualize them. For my money, I would pull three: “Passenger Side,” “It’s Just That Simple,” and “Box Full of Letters.” More than any of the other songs on A.M.., they point to the subtlety and songwriting abilities of the band. Furthermore, I would argue that the album’s “underwhelming” status obscures a strength of the album: Jeff Tweedy’s personal growth. Listening to his contributions on Uncle Tupelo’s classic No Depression, Tweedy’s songs (especially “Train”) try to fit in with Farrar’s vision rather than find their own voice. His singing is closer to a high schooler’s adenoidal whine than the Neil Young-style croon he adopts here (side note: listening to Young’s “Walk On” from On the Beach is essential for anyone looking for the roots of Wilco’s music).

Any last thoughts on A.M..?

Ben: “Train” is my favorite song on No Depression, and I think it’s telling that the same personnel minus Farrar, did not produce a single song approaching the raucous energy or straight ahead rock of “Train”. I would say it’s a deliberate choice, not a shortcoming.
Although, at the time,  A.M.. was seen as the other album from the other guy from Uncle Tupelo in hindsight, it was clearly a step toward a new identity and style. Ultimately, I think this album fares better if it’s viewed outside Wilco’s narrative arc, because I think it deserves to be regarded as a fun if occasionally forgettable collection of pop songs as opposed the glorified growing pain.

Even when viewed within Wilco’s developmental arc, I think A.M.. deserves more respect. It’s essential as an indicator of and catalyst for growth,

Without the disconnect between principle songwriter, Tweedy, and his audience, it’s tough to believe Wilco would have worked on a sprawling 19-song double album about listeners’ relationships with music.

I believe that thought should segue us smoothly toward Wilco’s next release.

 (Editor’s Note: I cannot believe with spent 1,700 or so words discussing Wilco, we only slipped in two hyperbolic Beatles references)

Author: Ben Hohenstatt

I was born April 7, 1992. I'm a reporter in Alaska, and an alum of Auburn University. I am an avid fan of music, Chicago sports teams and pop culture in general.

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