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Music Review: Wilco – The Whole Love

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Wilco’s best overall record since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is also their most stylistically varied since that 2002 album, widely acknowledged as their masterpiece. Much of the same experimental spirit first heard on Foxtrot and its followup A Ghost Is Born is also present on The Whole Love.

But lying in between the sonic freak-outs of tracks like this album’s wild seven minute opener “Art Of Almost,” you’ll also find plenty of the quieter, more understated alt-country elegance that characterized more recent albums like the critically underrated Sky Blue Sky and Wilco: The Album.

More than anything else though, The Whole Love is the album which finally realizes the full potential of Wilco as a completed band. On this album, they are far more than just chief singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s backup crew.

Ever since the addition of guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline to the lineup, there have been sporadic hints of these explosive possibilities.

But up until now, they have been only heard in occasional bits and pieces. These have included the Kraftwerk meets Crazy Horse fireworks of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” (from the live Kicking Television album), the Allman Brothers like axe-dueling of “Impossible Germany” (from Sky Blue Sky), and the dead-on George Harrison by way of Badfinger inspired guitar parts of “You Never Know” (from Wilco: The Album).

On The Whole Love, these previously separate, but highly combustible elements are brought fully together for the first time.

The results are like putting a match to a powder keg. The Whole Love seamlessly combines the more elegant alt-country shades of albums like Sky Blue Sky, with the further out-there avant-experimentalist spirit of early 2000’s albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. From Patrick Sansone’s lighter than air flourishes on piano and glockenspiel, to the metronomic, rock steady rhythm section of bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche, Wilco cover all the bases on The Whole Love. But of course, there is also the wild card that is guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline. Here, he fits the band like a previously missing glove.

Cline’s stamp is all over this album.

It runs from the histrionic, Jorma Kaukonen meets Robert Fripp psychedelic guitar craziness of the seven minute opening track “The Art Of Almost,” to the more subtle steel guitar flourishes of country flavored tracks like “Open Mind” and “Black Moon.” On the latter, Cline makes a bagpipe guitar noise not heard since the likes of Big Country back in the eighties. Cline’s edgy guitar work also provides a perfect counterpoint to the Doors-like keyboards of Mikael Jorgensen and the throbbing bass of Stirratt on “I Might.” Listening to this track will have you checking the liner notes for a Ray Manzarek credit.

The Whole Love is also Wilco’s most layered sounding recording to date. Nowhere is this newfound density more evident than on “Capitol City.” Here, carnival sounds recalling those heard on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper are interwoven with an American twist on the vaudevillian feel of the original, uniquely British sounding Beatles classic.

But it is still Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting that ultimately makes this album. Whether he is turning romantic longing into an erotic joke on “I Might” (with lyrics describing “your sno-cone and its piss and blood”), or hitting a perfect note of melancholy with the line “I kill my memories with a cheap disease” on the Beatles like “Sunloathe,” Tweedy remains a master of lyrical understatement.

The centerpiece of The Whole Love however, is undoubtedly the closing track. “One Sunday Morning (A Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” is a twelve minute lyrical tour de’ force. Describing the breakdown of a father/son relationship for reasons never explained other than the cryptically spoken line “father said what I had become, no one should be” (feel free to fill in your own blanks here), “One Sunday Morning” combines Tweedy’s own whispered lyrics with the lovely sounding piano and glock tinkling of Sansone. It is one of Tweedy’s most descriptively poignant songs ever.

Long story short, there is not a bad cut to be found here. Wilco’s The Whole Love is at this late point, the one to beat for album of the year 2011.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.