A Wilco album used to be an event. More importantly, it sounded like an event. The Chicago folk-rock band’s best full-lengths — specifically the peerless four-album run from 1996’s Being There up to 2004’s A Ghost Is Born — have always been their biggest, most audacious creative statements, the ones that pushed the boundaries of genre and redefined the concept of Wilco altogether.
The audacity itself wasn’t the draw; it was the way Jeff Tweedy’s restless creative impulse pushed him to write truly inspired songs then use all kinds of studio trickery to elevate them to ever greater heights, like Midwest roots-rock’s very own Brian Wilson. Wilco’s constantly reshuffling lineups surely contributed to the band’s breathless evolution, providing Tweedy and longtime bassist John Stirratt with a steady stream of fresh perspectives that regularly altered the group’s sonic geometry. But the engine was Tweedy, the unsung Uncle Tupelo sidekick turned musical visionary who seemed intent on topping himself with every new endeavor.
Tweedy’s aspirations don’t seem nearly that lofty anymore, and they haven’t for a while. A dozen years ago, when Wilco solidified their current six-man lineup for the tour behind A Ghost Is Born, a band once defined by upheaval began settling into a comfortable groove. They made Sky Blue Sky, a pleasant collection of soft, easygoing guitar jams, and then Wilco (The Album), a sort of career overview that mostly felt like going through the motions. A much better Wilco overture was 2011’s The Whole Love, a rewarding sprawl that indulged the unit’s arty side while also providing a slew of the straightforward rockers that have always been Wilco’s backbone. Even that album, though, was less a return to glory than a revisitation of past glories.
The Whole Love would have been a fine punctuation for Wilco’s career, and for a while it appeared to be exactly that. While Tweedy’s wife (successfully) battled cancer, he teamed up with his teenage son to make Sukierae, a solo album that tapped into the drowsy experimental sounds of Loose Fur, his side project with Glenn Kotche and Jim O’Rourke. But four years passed with only the faintest whisper of a new Wilco album before Star Wars fell from the sky last summer. That batch of cantankerous rock songs initially left me cold but is ingratiating itself with time. It was not the kind of epic on which Wilco built their legend, but it at least represented exploration of a sort.
Schmilco, which was released on vinyl yesterday and hits digital retailers Friday, feels like a companion to Star Wars, the sigh that inevitably follows a bout of physical flailing. There is a song called “Shrug And Destroy” that could work as a mission statement. Whereas the chamber-pop fantasias of Summerteeth and the urban folk deconstructions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot unfolded with an ambitious scope that all but demanded attention, Schmilco seems disinterested in grabbing your ear, instead forcing listeners to work hard for understated thrills. Back on Sukierae, Tweedy sang, “I’ve always been low key, let’s let the records show.” This record definitely shows it.
Schmilsson, the Harry Nilsson LP that inspired this project’s name, is remembered as the moment a talented songwriter shook off industry expectations to follow his muse. In contrast, Schmilco dials back the wildest inclinations of a band that has already bucked expectations several times over. Even the louder tracks, like the back-porch lope “Nope” and the peppy pop-rocker “Someone To Lose,” are mild-mannered — or as the paranoid technology treatise “Locator” puts it, “even when I run, I’m crawling.” That song was our first public taste of the album, and it turns out to be its most aggressive offering too — ferocious, but only like a cat woken up from its nap. The discordant “Common Sense” manages to be chaotic without leaving a lasting impression. And “Cry All Day,” the album’s prettiest and most immediate song, never intensifies beyond a brisk gallop.
The unintrusive nature of the songwriting is not an obstacle in and of itself. Wilco have always laced their albums with moments of somber introspection, but never have they sounded so flat and whispery and verging on dull. An entire tracklist of songs like “Sunken Treasure,” “Radio Cure,” and “You & I” could be downright charming if sequenced correctly. But these tracks aren’t really like that. They fall short in terms of dynamism and emotional release. They aren’t the kind of songs that make you fall in love with a band; they’re ones you keep going back to in search of that familiar spark and eventually convince yourself to appreciate, if only out of loyalty to a band that has enraptured you for a decade-plus. The problem is not simply that Schmilco is chill, bro. It’s practically flatlining.
As on Star Wars, Tweedy rarely raises his voice beyond a mumble. Wilco’s signature widescreen catharsis has been reined in, scaled down to something short of cinematic. The distinctive playing of Kotche, Stirratt, and Nels Cline is similarly muted. There is beauty to behold here, but if you’re not listening closely it might pass by unnoticed: the celestial bluegrass outro tacked onto “Quarters,” the wistful melodies snaking through the background of “We Aren’t The World (Safety Girl),” the gentle sonic tapestry that undergirds “If I Ever Was A Child.” These sonic flourishes are marks of veteran expertise, but they’re background details meant to be discovered after the initial rush wears off. Ideally they would not be the most memorable musical features of a Wilco song.
What does stick out, due to the lack of fireworks, are Tweedy’s lyrics, as sharp and beautiful as ever. His words were once equal parts open-hearted and oblique, emotionally raw but also given to undecipherable blather about American aquarium drinkers who assassin down the avenue. Schmilco finds him more grounded but no less evocative. On humble opener “Normal American Kids,” he looks around at his fellow citizens and feels familiar sensations from his youth, when the so-called regular kids freaked him out. Similarly, it’s easy to imagine staunchly liberal Tweedy surveying Donald Trump supporters on “Cry All Day” when he declares, “However there’s another/ Another future to fight/ I never took it so seriously/ Oh it was serious all right.” The aforementioned “Locator” communicates reasonable horror about technology as normalized as Google Maps. Again and again his words reveal subtle tensions beneath the album’s docile surface, a weariness that has always underlined Wilco’s music and is intensifying with age, morphing from youthful discontent to tired resignation.
That changing perspective seems to be changing Tweedy’s songwriting impulse, making him less likely to communicate his personal turmoil in sweeping universal gestures á la “Via Chicago” and “Poor Places” and “Misunderstood.” Naturally, that retreat inward is making it harder to connect with Wilco’s music, and unless you have a vested interest in doing so, Schmilco will probably leave you cold. About 15 listens deep, I’m only just now starting to grasp the project’s appeal, and it’s different from the rhapsody I’ve become accustomed to — an album I can live with rather than one I can’t live without. On “Happiness,” Tweedy muses, “My mother says I’m great/ And it always makes me sad/ I don’t think she’s being nice/ I really think she believes that.” I believe it too, even if he now seems less interested in breaking my heart than guarding his own.