A couple of American aquarium drinkers, took a break from assassin-ing down the avenue to discuss Wilco’s crowning achievement.
As always, I’m going through Wilco’s body of work with the aid of my friend, Jimi, who actually knows things about Wilco, why certain production decisions were made, whereas I have a passable familiarity with the band and their antics.
It took about three months to complete this edition, and boy, is it not in anyway reflected reflected by the actual content.
Still, without further ado, here’s our Yankee Hotel Foxtrot analysis, enjoy.
Ben: We’re here!
It’s peak Wilco. The band’s non-debatable high water mark, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
It’s one of the most critically fawned over albums of the first decade of the 21st century, and it was made by our milquetoast boys from Belleville.
As we’ve noted in previous rambles, Wilco was not a money-maker for their record label. The band had their champions within the label, but when AOL and Time Warner merged, there was a shakeup, and when the dust settled, things were decidedly non-friendly to a certain gently experimental power pop band.
Still, Wilco pressed on with making YHF, and ironically, as the AOL merger would eventually end Wilco’s deal with Warner, the band work-shopped their ideas online, and after a buyout, an online release to thorough adulation would be the first indicator that Wilco had finally created a commercially successful album.
And what an album it is.
To me, this album is The White Album, but shrouded in a gentle, electronic corona. From open to close this album contains some of Wilco’s best melodies and obtuse lyrics that find a surprising emotional resonance.
I adore this album, and I know you do too.
I’m sure my introduction skipped some pertinent information about Jay Bennet and Jeff Tweedy’s Spider-Man v. Venom-like struggle for control of the album, while they collaborated more closely than ever before and popped opiates like Tic Tacs, so feel free to fire away your own opening salvo, and share with me your biggest takeaway from YHF.
Jimi: Holy shit, what an album this is. I know I’m using my characteristic tact with that statement, but when confronted with an album this good, it cannot be overstated. This is the cornerstone on which Wilco’s legend is built, as well as possibly the greatest album to ever come out of Chicago.
I’m not quite sure I would characterize this as their White Album, which was built on the Beatles fracturing their psyche into four distinct parts. Rather, this is the sound of a band pulling together and collectively firing on all cylinders. Special attention should be paid to the friction between Bennett and Tweedy, however. Sam Jones’s excellent documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” had the good fortune of capturing the recording of the album, from inception to tour. In one of the movie’s most potent scenes, Bennett calls a migraine-ridden Tweedy to the recording studio to work on the mastering of “Ashes of American Flags.” Bennett in particular is obsessing over the orchestral squall that closes the song and the amount of split-seconds that should happen between the end of that section and the piano chords that introduce “Heavy Metal Drummer.” Tweedy just wants the problem solved. The tension between the two is key to the magic of the album: Tweedy writes the killer pop songs, while Bennett’s obsessiveness leads to the level of detail and craftsmanship. Without Tweedy, we wouldn’t have the country-power pop mashup of “Kamera,” while we wouldn’t have the perfectly calibrated climaxes of “Poor Places.” The album simply cannot work without either of them, or the stellar production of noise musician Jim O’Rourke.
My first impression of the album is one of an album that paints an impressionistic portrait of Chicago. People enjoy this album practically everywhere, but for us Chicagoans, these songs can’t help but bring up sense memories. “Jesus, Etc.” is a late-night walk downtown with a lover; “Kamera” cruises down Lake Shore Drive on a spring afternoon; and “I’m The Man Who Loves You” is a killer concert at Lincoln Hall.
At least that’s what struck me on first listen. Does the Chicago connection work for you? We both know there are a multitude of great tracks on this album (and I’d like to give every one of them at least a passing mention), but are there any moments that don’t work for you?
Ben: First, I’m going to defend my White Album stance. “Radio Cure” has a sudden feudal setting that reminds me of “Cry Baby Cry”, but it goes deeper.
While, Bennett and Tweedy sequestered themselves and collaborated, the two men fiercely fought for control of the album, and that unwillingness to compromise is what makes me think of The Beatles’ most fractured album.
To be honest, I don’t know if it’s my bizarre matriculation about the South that lasted for five years, or some personal failing, but aside from knowing Wilco is a Chicago band and the occasionally reference to the city in their work, I don’t know if I would have drawn the connection organically.
I love, love, love “Heavy Metal Drummer”, but I sometimes wonder if it would’ve been better as a standalone lark. It’s tremendous on its own, but as a piece of this album, its always seemed odd to me.
Also, worth noting, but I’ve probably listened to “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” at least once a week every week since I was 12.
Any personal connections you’ve made to this album? What works the best? What comes the closest to not working for you, because I suspect there is nothing you find completely without function?
Jimi: I feel this is more like Wilco’s Sgt. Pepper’s, where they use sonic space to conjure up physical space, but that’s my personal opinion.
I understand some of the hate towards “Heavy Metal Drummer,” which has a bifurcated reputation as both one of the band’s most reviled “early” songs and as one of their most underrated. In “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, the band talks about how, with this album, they would take each song and deconstruct it until they ended up at the most “interesting” result. You can see this in “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” which starts as a folk ballad in the movie to become a noise-pop epic (before finding second life as a soul standard, courtesy of JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound), and in “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” which seemed destined to transmute into the arena rock stomper that Wilco eventually turned it into. “Heavy Metal Drummer” never seems to have gotten this treatment. However, for me, this is what I like to call the “mask dropping moment,” where we’re reminded that Wilco, for all their formal experimentation, are a band that genuinely likes playing together. It gets the details of local bands in the Chicago suburbs right. Plus, on a sentimental note, it’s the first Wilco song I ever heard, while you and I were driving through Canada as high school freshmen.
For me, the highest moments of this album are among the best in 2000s music. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is shambling, so it takes a few spins to realize how well constructed it is; each seemingly improvised moment is constructed to hit at the right emotional level. The whole thing makes sense when it shouldn’t. “Jesus, Etc.” is a song that by all means shouldn’t work, a country-pop lament with neosoul touches that make it sound like something the Doobie Brothers or ELO would’ve recorded at their most understated. Instead, it’s one of the best songs on the album, philosophical and heartbreaking. “I’m the Man Who Loves You” teases you with a serrated guitar into before turning into a sweet folk jam. “Poor Places” has a slow build to a jaw-dropping moment of realization: “It makes no difference to me.”
As far as things that don’t work, the ballads on the album took me much longer to get into than the other songs. I wasn’t sure when I was first getting into the album at first if this was due to the somewhat alienating nature of the album or if it was what I call “the ballad problem” that most young bands have. That is, unlike faster songs, slower ones can’t pull you in with their energy so they have to pull you in some other way (for illustration, listen to Bruce Springsteen’s “Mary, Queen of Arkansas” from Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and then listen to “Racing in the Street” from Darkness on the Edge of Town). But the more I listened to this album, the more I realized how much the ballads pack into such a small space. “Ashes of American Flags” is a power ballad changed into something far more interesting: a hazy summer lament. “Radio Cure” is only five minutes, but packs enough in there for repeated listens.
What do you think this album improved on from Summerteeth? Why do you think this album resonated in a way their previous albums had not?
Ben: On Summerteeth a lot of the experimental audio flourishes seemed purely cosmetic. The buzzing frequencies on “I’m Always in Love” seem like a weird but enjoyable add-on to a gentle pop song.
On YHF, the sonic weirdness does some serious heavy lifting for songs’ melodies. The chiming and whirring on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” establish the song’s hook, they aren’t just there for texture. Quick sidebar: I’ve always though Miss Havisham was undoubtedly a huge fan of that track.
And, of course, like all good, great and above average Wilco albums, YHF‘s success is largely determined by its hooks. For all the oddball sounds on the album, almost every song can be hummed absentmindedly.
Wilco simply married some of best songs with some of the band’s most interesting instrumentation and had painstaking production preside over the union. It really is as simple as a good band hitting all their marks, I think.
What’s your theory for the band’s unexpected transcendence?
Also, picking the 20 best Wilco songs seems pretty easy until we come to this album, but hacking away at YHF is daunting. What tracks make your 20?
I’ve always heard this album is what gave major labels more patience with experiment art-rock bands in the mid-aughts. Do you think we really have this album to thank for some of the stronger entries into the Flaming Lips’ oeuvre? Aside from that, does this album have a legacy outside of it being Wilco’s best-loved album? I don’t recall it spamming a wave of breezy, experimental Americana-pop imitators.
Is there any way we can protract discussion of this album for a few more months? In my opinion we’re about to see a pretty steep decline for our next chat.
Jimi: In “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, Rolling Stone critic David Fricke notes that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had to scare Reprise Records when it was delivered because it doesn’t say, upfront, who exactly it is for. Turns out, it appealed to practically everyone. The optimism present in even the darkest songs worked like comfort food at the dawn of an uncertain new millenium. The band really tapped into something elemental about living in America at the dawn of the Bush years. There’s a reason that certain conspiracy-minded listeners claim that the album predicted 9/11 (the album’s intended release date).
In terms of my 20, I could definitely see “Jesus, Etc.” and “Poor Places” having reserved spots on the list. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is certainly up there too. The skewed noise ballad “Ashes of American Flags” only seems to get better with every listen. And if there’s one song I pull out to listen to on its own, it’s “Kamera.”
In terms of this album’s influence, I think it was more important for what it signaled rather than the imitators it spawned. It’s hard to overstate how dire the indie rock situation seemed in the early 2000s. Pavement folded in 1999. Neutral Milk Hotel was just beginning to build up their huge cult, but they had quit years before. Respected alternative groups that had broken big the previous decade (Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam) had already started a depressing slide into irrelevance. The White Stripes hadn’t hit it big yet. The Strokes were just gearing up Is This It? for release. Radiohead seemed to be the only 90s holdover that seemed to continue growing with each new release. Then this album came, and it proved that bands could still make money while making mature, difficult albums. And I believe we’re both shortchanging the sonic influence of this album, considering that it led to one of last year’s best albums, Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. Both are lushly orchestrated folk albums, with 11 structurally similar tracks.
What songs go in your 20? How do you feel this fits into the indie rock scene of the early 2000s? Any final thoughts on this album?
Ben: I think you’re overselling how dire 2001 was for music.
Jay-z’s best album, The Blueprint, came out on Sept. 11, White Blood Cells was released in July of 2001 and both “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and “Fell in Love with a Girl” would become massive hit, a truly strange but gleeful of Montreal album came out on famed indie label Elephant 6, Daft Punk released their best album, Discovery, as well.
There were also albums by Modest Mouse, The Avalanches, God Speed! You Black Emperor, The Microphones, Drive-By Truckers, New Pornographers and Outkast that all came out in either ’00 or ’01.
Still, you’re point that a lot of radio-friendly alt bands were yielding diminishing returns. After a locust-like dormancy, my beloved Weezer released their self-titled green album. (And yes, there is going to be a ‘ I barely know ‘er feature where I dive into all the Weezer albums).
Two years earlier, Beck released Midnite Vultures, and while it is hands down the best Beck album, oh man, was it ever not received that way, and he wouldn’t rehab his reputation until ’02s Sea Change.
There was definitely a changing of the guard feeling, and Wilco’s warm poptimism was definitely a retreat for a lot of people who considered themselves musically in the know.
As far as songs that would crack my top 20 Wilco tunes, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, “Radio Cure” and “Jesus, Etc” are my no-brainers. “Kamera”, “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” are all delightful, but probably don’t quite make the list.
I think this album had a profound effect on the immediate music landscape in a couple of ways.
One, albums like Sea Change and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots both got made and received studio support. Bands such as Spoon and Band of Horses were able to find their audience and labels could rest assured that slightly experimental Americana had an audience.
Two, the Internet played a huge role in the genesis of this album. Radiohead promoted Kid A with an internet leak, and in my opinion use of the Internet is a big part of the bands’ indelible link.
Wilco sort of leaked this album online, but they also used the net to workshop their songs and provide sort of progress reports on how the album is coming along. It seems damn prescient in 2016, when teasers, studio photo instagrams, Twitter and surprise album streams are a major part of how music is consumed.
I’m a little upset we’re done talking about YHF, because I’m not as wild about what comes next, but hopefully your enthusiasm will carry the day.