Though Wilco has been my favorite band since Summerteeth, my in-print relationship with the band has been somewhat rocky since starting this blog back in 2007. I not only declared Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the best album of the decade a few years back, but my favorite album, period. Before that though I self-righteously (read: boneheadedly) “Re-Imagined” A Ghost Is Born as a completely different entity, though it’s as well written a record as there is in the Tweedy back catalog, save YHF. As for their past two less adored studio releases, there’s no denying Sky Blue Sky has its soft rock charms. The title track is a gorgeous reimagining of “Far Far Away”, Nels & Jeff conjure alternate guitar-universes on “Impossible Germany”, and “What Light” makes a Guthrie-esque mission statement of where Tweedy’s head was at as a songwriter at the time. But it was the first time a Wilco album contained songs that I routinely skipped. I still have no idea how “Shake It Off” ends, or if it even does. The remarkably forgettable Wilco (the Album) followed and contained even fewer redeemable moments – in fact I just perused the tracklist and I have no recollection whatsoever of a song called “Solitaire”. As a Tweedy fan since late-period Uncle Tupelo, I’ve been waiting (rather impatiently) for a record I could call a return to form for a long time.
The excellent The Whole Love, though just short of being in the league of their best work, is just that. From beginning to end the new record sounds amazing. The production is pristine (props to Pat Sansone for taking a much larger role in that department, and to Tweedy for allowing him to), and the band plays as democratically as any 6-piece ensemble working today. There are subtly breathtaking string sections used liberally throughout, and the arrangements, not unlike classic-era Wilco, often take unexpected and exciting detours. Like Wilco (The Album) before it, much of The Whole Love acts as an encapsulation of Wilco’s entire career, and as such it is an infinitely more successful career-overview than its predecessor. Dense pop songs like “Dawned on Me” and “I Might” echo Summerteeth’s bright, swirling arrangements, while “Open Mind” sounds like a long lost treasure from the Being There sessions, if not Harvest-era Neil Young. And one of the true highlights is the winding, 12+ minute closer “One Sunday Morning”, which, with its lyrical depth and straightforward folk arrangement, could easily pass for a Mermaid Avenue track.
But that’s not to say there aren’t new tricks to be had among The Whole Love’s near one-hour run time. The acoustic “Rising Red Lung” is so hushed that it borders on lo-fi, while “Standing O” is a big dumb/fun rocker with plenty of arena-rock gloss. The title track is a spry, seasick little pop song with Tweedy’s finest vocal performance on the record. However, none of the surprises on The Whole Love come close to accomplishing what the stunning album opener “Art of Almost” does. A multi-part electro-rock epic, the song is a staggering art-punk manifesto. It’s hard to believe that the same band that led off their last two records with the pleasant but slight “Either Way” and something as goofily self-referential as “Wilco (The Song)” is still capable of such an awe-inspiring 7 minutes. As a lead off track, “Art of Almost” is a worthy successor to “Misunderstood”, “Can’t Stand It”, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, and “At Least that’s What You Said”.
And as for the “return to form”, let’s be honest – Jeff Tweedy is well aware of the potential legacy his band is forging, as well as the critical backlash that has accompanied his last two records. Refocused in every way, The Whole Love is the most inspired set of songs Wilco has yielded in 7 years. Though the middle of the album isn’t quite as sharp as the start or finish, The Whole Love is still strong enough to be considered among the year’s best releases, and places Wilco right back in any conversation concerning America’s best bands. It’s just great to have them back creating vibrant, exciting, and unpredictable songs once again.