When I first learned very early on this year that Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Bob Dylan among others would be putting out new albums, I was so excited that I jumped the gun a bit and began making early plans for my "best albums of 2009" list. When Springsteen and U2 didn't quite deliver the records I'd hoped for — and even Dylan's album, though quite good, wasn't exactly Modern Times great — my optimism, however, soon turned to worry.
With their new album, Wilco are making me breathe quite a bit easier.
That said, I have to admit to being a bit of a Johnny-Come-Lately to the Wilco party. My first real exposure to Wilco was the band's 2002 Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album and tour, both of which initially confounded me more than anything else.
I've since come around. But my initial impression was that yes, Jeff Tweedy wrote some interesting songs, and that the guys could definitely play. But something was still missing. On the followup album, A Ghost Is Born, I thought they were getting closer, though. I played the living crap out of that record's Kraftwerk meets Crazy Horse opus "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," for one thing.
For me though, all the pieces really began to fit with 2007's Sky Blue Sky, and especially the live Wilco show I saw that same year. The missing part of the puzzle, as it turned out, came in the form of one Nels Cline. A two-ton monster of a guitarist if there ever was one, Cline also happened to fit this band like a glove.
As much as Cline's unrestrained bursts of feedback-laden guitar might seem to be a rather odd compliment to the often sweet, understated songwriting of Tweedy — the fact is that it really works.
Look no further for evidence of that than on Wilco's fabulous Ashes Of American Flags concert documentary. On that DVD, Cline shreds the living crap out of his instrument on songs like "Impossible Germany," "Handshake Drugs," and "Via Chicago." But it is always in complement towards, rather than a distraction from, Jeff Tweedy's songs.