Wilco – Sky Blue Sky

The peregrine moves in to attack...WilcoSky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)

Don’t let a passing listen fool you into skipping what is a slight return to the elements that made Wilco great. Sky Blue Sky is a sleeper album; the kind that is fast disappearing in this hyper-saturated digital world.

Contrary to what major labels might tell you, the real danger in unfettered peer-to-peer file sharing is not that it might spell the end of the record industry as we know it, but that with so much music at our finger tips we might not take the time to stop and listen. There may not be any sleeper hits anymore, and that would be a shame.

I’ve been an ardent Wilco fan since I first heard “Passenger Side” on a mixtape in the back of a Winnebago going to see Crosby, Stills and Nash in the mid-90s. I’ve seen Jeff Tweedy solo and with the various incarnations of the band seriously countless times in venues ranging from the piss-drunk intimacy of Lounge Ax to the venerable opulence of the Auditorium Theater. My fandom reached the mega-geek stratosphere when my own band opened for Jeff Tweedy at a sold out Vic Theater performance a couple years ago. It’s with that history that I find myself ashamed that I nearly dismissed Sky Blue Sky when it didn’t grab me on first listen. I am here to atone for my sins.

Jeff Tweedy has a special talent; an uncanny ability to trim off portions of an audience that has followed his work for years while nurturing and growing his overall fan base. Pruning and tending all the way, Tweedy has become the Family Gardner as he claimed on the Minus Five song of the same name. Each successive Wilco album since AM seems to be an attempt to confound the perceptions established by the previous, while almost impossibly supporting the musical landscape it forged. Being There undid the continuation of country-fried goodness that AM brought over from Uncle Tupelo while maintaining the folksy foundation. Summerteeth blew up the Spector-inspired production and sublime lyrical experimentation of Being There. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot expanded the bombastic production and droning feedback of Being There. Then A Ghost is Born assaulted the listener with a 7 and half minute sonic migraine. It was all coming to a head and the next logical conclusion was 45 minutes of unlistenable madness and lyrical gibberish backed by “tasteful drumming” and “contemplative bass lines.”

But then Jeff Tweedy got right.

Recent interviews have Tweedy explaining his distaste of the “tortured artist” cliché and how his sometimes violent wordsmithing led to amateur psychoanalysis from critics and fans alike. It can’t be easy being married to the man who wrote “I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me.” Nor can it be easy to actually live out that cliché.

It was with that in mind that Tweedy, fresh from a rehab stint to kick prescription drugs, started to see the sun shining. Sky Blue Sky is a celebration of light. Lilting melodies and airy production bring a freshness to the album that hasn’t been felt in Wilco World for years. From interviews and a quick reading of the lyrics that make up Wilco’s eighth studio record we get the impression of a family emerging from a successful session of group therapy. The greatest danger I see for the future is a leaning too far into 70s puss-rock softness or a total regression into nursery rhymes. Neither of which are found on Sky Blue Sky but the inklings are there.

And to think I almost missed it. The reason why is plain: I am not a fan of Nels Cline’s guitar playing. There’s no denying his talent, but I subscribe to the Johnny Marr school of guitar soloing, believing that the reason some musicians play so many notes is because they can’t find the right ones. Cline’s jazzy runs and blistering twists detract from what is essentially a simple album. Additionally, my interest in jazz-influenced rock and roll ends with The Zombies.

But dismissing this album because I don’t like SOME of the solos is like abandoning a friend because I don’t like his new girlfriend—an offense I’ve also recently committed. Given time, I can now see that all the elements I’ve always loved about this band are still there and still glorious in their execution. I’m glad I took the time to hear them.

MP3: Wilco – “What Light”

Wilco – “What Light”

Wilco – “Shake It Off” Trailer

Wilco – “Walken” (at Lollapalooza 2006)

Sky Chase by Manuel Presti

Curious about the cover image? It’s from “Sky Chase,” a photo of a peregrine falcon sweeping into a flock of starlings that won Manuel Presti 2005’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year award.

Previously: Wilco: A Dream Can Mean Anything; Interview with Greg Kot: Learning How to Die; Wilco: Far, Far Away; Just a Fan: the Give and Take of Downloading; Trying: The Wilco Movie. Yeah, we’ve spent a lot of time writing about Wilco over the years. [And those fuckers won’t even send us a promo! – ed.] Check out this early message board conversation about YHF.

38 thoughts on “Wilco – Sky Blue Sky”

  1. Wilco recently sent out a MySpace bulletin, asking fans to do the right thing and fork over some cash for Sky Blue Sky. I did then one step further and even pre-ordered this thing directly. I should have waited and just bought it the old fashioned way: the fucker isn’t even here yet. I hope the thing doesn’t suck. Derek’s review has got me feeling a little better about it, but it sure would be nice if I fucking had a copy to hear for myself.

    Great job helping fans do the right thing.

    /bitchy rant

  2. Jolie got home last night while Hank and I were blasting the new album. She happened to come in during the guitar solos at the end of “Impossible Germany.”

    “Oh, I don’t like that!” she said.

    “Too jazzy?” I asked.

    “Too Grateful Dead.”

    Spot on, as usual.

  3. Yeah, funny I just came across this review after writing on another board that I wasn’t keen on it at all after sampling some songs.

    Then again I pretty much hated AGIB except for two songs. And I used to be such a crazy fan of theirs. So I’m on the fence.

    However your review Derek has made me realize I do need to at least give the damn thing a chance.

    Jake, funny, but out of all the songs I’ve tried listening to “Impossible Germany” is the one I’ve liked the most out of them all. And I don’t like the Dead, even though a huge, framed drawing of Jerry Garcia looms over me as I write this.

  4. How many changes chances do you give it though? Jim DeRogatis claims that he “only began to appreciate the gorgeous subtlety of the best tunes after a dozen listens… But if any artist of his generation has earned the right to ask his fans’ indulgence, it’s Jeff Tweedy.”

  5. You did mean “chances” right? Because I really don’t know how I would change the album myself.

  6. Given that this album seems to require so many listens before it sinks in, I have to ask if this is the sign of a good album or sympathetic ears? Do Wilco fans WANT to like this album and therefore dismiss the elements that would otherwise disqualify it from our collection?

  7. The former question Derek is very, very, good one. And one that I keep running through my head.

    My issue is that an album should be able to grab you at LEAST within two listens. It shouldn’t take you 12 to decide you like an album. To me that means there’s something wrong and you’re trying too hard to convince yourself it’s worthy.

    I’ll still give it a listen, but if it takes me more then a couple I’m writing it off.

  8. Charli, yes I meant chances.

    I plan on listening to this album a few more times closely and then giving it the ultimate test: mixing up some margaritas, slathering on the sunscreen, and throwing some burgers on the grill. I have a hunch that Sky Blue Sky is going to be perfect the summer barbecue soundtrack!

    If only I had a yacht… (Click those ads, people!)

  9. I thought Sky Blue Sky was pretty boring the first few times I heard it, but it’s won me over.

    I really, really like it now. I don’t really like “Impossible Germany,” but it isn’t because of the guitar work (I actually like that quite a bit). I cringe at that “Impossible Germany / Unlikely Japan” couplet.

    To qualify, I’m a somewhat long-time Wilco fan, but not to the extent of you guys. I barely listen to the previous albums anymore — sometimes YHF or Summerteeth will get a listen, but that’s about it, when at one time they were both mainstays in my rotation.

    So take that for what it’s worth, those who haven’t heard the album. This is an excellent summer sunset album. Like Jake said…margaritas, bbqs…that’s what Sky Blue Sky is about.

  10. I was bored and underwelmed with it at first. This morning while I was taking a train into the city (in my morning haze), it finally grabbed me (it was my 3rd time to listen to it). Now I have been listening to it all day. Its not my favorite Wilco album, but I have to say its pretty damn good.

    And ‘What Light’is one of the best songs they’ve ever written.

  11. A bland album that might have had some good songs on it if not for the thick layer of jam band goo smeared on top of it and a soggy base of warmed over classic rock underneath. Now I’ll never know.

    It’s pleasant, sometimes. But then I realize I could be listening to something fun or interesting.

  12. “Do Wilco fans WANT to like this album and therefore dismiss the elements that would otherwise disqualify it from our collection?”

    I keep waiting to hate a Wilco album to gain some cred around here. Unfortunately, I really love this one as well.

    I hear Dylan and the Band in SBS as much as anything. It has a nice, warm feel.

  13. “Do Wilco fans WANT to like this album and therefore dismiss the elements that would otherwise disqualify it from our collection?”

    Nah, I’ve been plenty disappointed in artists I’ve liked as much/more than Wilco (I’m lookin at you, Rivers). Moral support or not, you know when you’re not feeling the music.

    I’ve gotten into the habit of keeping all the music I’m not feeling though, because sometimes the difference between a bad album and a great one is some life experience or a change in mindset.

    Anyway, as Dreamin’ said, Sky Blue Sky is nice and warm. Those are the perfect descriptors for it. And this is a nice and warm time of year. It’s not Wilco’s best album (I re-listened to Being There, Summerteeth, and YHF today for the first time in a while to compare, and they’re all still holding it down.) It just sounds like a sunny afternoon, and sometimes you’ve gotta just enjoy those.

  14. I think this cd is a little bit of a disaster. It reminds me of the Band without the good songs but the feel of their music.

    I think its a fact that alot of artists make better music when they struggling with personal issues.

    I will give it a couple more listens- the first time I feel asleep to Tweedy muttering about mowing his lawn. But the stretch of songs from Track 4-12 is a real death march.

  15. I resisted downloading/steaming the album prior to Tuesday and bought the CD on Wednesday. On first listen, it’s actually a bit livelier than I expected based on comments and reviews I’ve read. It’s definitely laid back but it does has some louder parts that I wasn’t expecting given the reviews.

    After a first listen, I don’t hate it…though I can’t say I love it. I also picked up the new Dinosaur Jr. and Elliot Smith at the same time. Not sure it’s relevant but once upon a time, I wouldn’t have taken a new wilco cd out of the player for about a week…let alone after a first listen.

    …and the new Dinosaur Jr is brilliant. It’s shocking how good they sound making basically the same songs they did 20ish years ago.

  16. for what it’s worth i actually like this record. which to me is surprising, as i haven’t been blown away by a wilco release yet. this one though has done it. it’s not spectacular, but it’s pretty darn good and pretty darn close to spectacular for a wilco cd. coming from me anyway. did anyone get the special edition?

  17. I’ve been a wilco/tweedy fan since the beginning. I love the direction the band has taken. I absolutely love this album. Hands down their best so far. Nels playing makes the difference for me…and any Garcia/Dead comparisons makes me smile even more.

  18. I like SBS okay. What is tough for me is the continued evolution of JT’s voice away from the one that really grabbed me. I’m listening to “The Long Cut” from UT’s Anodyne right now, and the singing is so immediate, insistent, and throaty. The new stuff is nothing like it.

  19. Thanks for the link, Jake. I had thought it was just a deliberate change in voice. I saw him play solo just before YHF was released and he said, half-jokingly (I thought), that he was shifting into a falsetto-voice, soul sound going forward. Who knows how much of it was physiological vs. intentional.

  20. 10 Days and Counting – Still waiting for my damn “pre-ordered” Album from the Wilco website! Profoundly annoying. I’ll buy my next Wilco Album at Wal-Mart.

  21. It’s going to take a while to grow on me, I really do want to give it time. Meanwhile, it sounds like a bad imitation of the Band mixed with a Dire Straits record.

  22. Want to read a funny quote?

    “We’ve got a lot of interest in making something really propulsive. Something I call a ‘dance’ record — thinking of like Sly Stone or the Spiders’ krautrock,” he says. “I want to know if I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I feel comfortable moving my body. Maybe not on stage, but in the studio. I’m painfully white. I don’t want to live the rest of my life like that.”

    –Jeff Tweedy, June 19, 2005

    Guess his initial intentions couldn’t overcome his overwhelming whiteness!

  23. I do not like it much, it seems that I have been pruned from Wilco. And seeing them live now is just not gonna happen. I still have many friends that love Tweedy and his doodling…. I have just moved on.

    And that impossible germany songs is one of the worst. As my friend Pat says “We’ll be hearing this in grocery stores in 5 years”

  24. I generally take Pitchfork with a heaping helping of salt… however, their review of SBS smoked the nail right on the cabeza. Maybe these guys were only pretending to be avant garde.

  25. I don’t think Wilco is pretending to be anything, just having fun “making shit up” and putting out records they like. To me, they seem like one of the most genuine bands around.

    I saw them in Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland last week and they’re playing songs from AM (Too Far Apart) with a generous helping of Being There and Summerteeth in addition to SBS. I should be sick of them by now, but there’s still a long way to go before they reach their “best before” date.

  26. You know, I am digging this sumbitch like its going out of style. Seems a perfect counterpoint for this time of year (Winter, 6 mos. after last post).

    For uno, I’m usually late to the game, music-wise. I like to let the hype die down a bit.

    For dos, I’ve never been a big Wilco fan, so I don’t bring the baggage of the fanatic (which I totally understand). I never quite bought into their “avant garde” sensibilities, though they made some cool-sounding stuff. And they always had a few songs that I liked a lot.

    I always admire/d their spirit (what they were going for each album) and creative courage.

    So I’m even digging the “jazziness” or “Garcia-ness” because its unusual to have some musical fluency that’s got some phrasing and interesting syncopation and tone and subtlety which comes from a different, maybe less hip place than most indie rock. Plus Tweedster seems to have chillaxed in the lyrics department.

  27. Still meh. We need a new feature called “On Second Thought” wherein we revisit albums reviewed to see if our initial thoughts are still true.

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