Bertrand Goldberg is best known as an architect, but those with more robust understanding of his work refer to him as a “design scientist.” After several years of training at the Cambridge School of Landscape Architecture and the Bauhaus in Berlin between World Wars, Goldberg returned to his native Chicago and quickly made a name for himself. His first big coup, dating to 1938, was a line of shops for the North Pole ice cream chain that could be easily disassembled and transported to alternate locations. From there he went on to design plywood boxcars, prefab housing units, rear-engine automobiles, innovative furniture, even mobile vaccine laboratories. But the crown jewel of his career was Marina City.
When Chicago city council designated Marina City an official landmark in 2016 — by a unanimous 48-0 vote — they were acknowledging what everyone in town had already known for decades. Constructed throughout the 1960s, the mixed-use development along the Chicago River was ahead of its time for the way it combined residential, commercial, and entertainment functions within the same urban complex. In addition to the marina that inspired its name, Marina City originally had its own plaza, bowling alley, and ice-skating rink; a steakhouse was later built over the latter. A theater once described by Architect Magazine as “a sculptural, saddle-backed steel building” is now Chicago’s House Of Blues. A 10-story office building has since become a hotel. And then there are the structures that made Marina City so iconic, twin 65-story apartment buildings that look like two giant corncobs inserted into a Chicago skyline full of rigid steel frames.
The Building Service Employees International Union, otherwise known as the Janitors’ Union, commissioned Goldberg to design Marina City as a means of persuading the Chicago population to keep living downtown in buildings that required custodians rather than fleeing to houses in the suburbs. That’s somewhat ironic because Goldberg — whose father grew up on a farm on Chicago’s rural outskirts, but who saw himself as a city person like his mother — had essentially planted a bit of the countryside in the middle of downtown. It was the perfect monument to the biggest city in the Midwest, and functional too, fulfilling Goldberg’s vision of design that meets people’s needs. Residents and tourists alike took a liking to the unique bit of architecture immediately. Those buildings didn’t just stand tall amidst the Windy City skyscrapers. They stood out.
I didn’t know any of this history when I found myself in Chicago for a music festival last weekend. I didn’t even know the buildings were called Marina City. I just knew I wanted to see them, the way I always do when I’m in town. So before heading to the festival grounds Sunday, I decided to go for a jog toward that stretch of Wacker Drive just east of the turn in the river. I put on my beat-up blue Nikes, grabbed my earbuds, and directed my phone to the only soundtrack that seemed prudent. As I darted past pedestrians and strollers, under towering buildings and clattering trains, the sounds of the city were drowned out by music I’ve listened to hundreds of times over the past two decades — an album birthed from Chicago at the dawn of my own adulthood, one that will always be intrinsically linked with the city in my mind. Obviously, I was listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
In 2001, Wilco were still best-known as an alt-country band, but they were rapidly moving in a direction that might have matched Goldberg’s old “design scientist” description. Jeff Tweedy had formed the group seven years earlier when Jay Farrar — his talented and inscrutably aloof best friend from back home in Belleville, Illinois — abruptly ended the band that had made them both semi-famous. Uncle Tupelo’s blend of country and punk had been deeply influential within a limited sphere, codifying a subgenre bustling enough to inspire a whole magazine named after one of their songs. Farrar and Tweedy were co-frontmen, but Farrar sang most of the band’s most iconic songs, and to many observers his hearty baritone seemed like Uncle Tupelo’s driving force. He was gravitas personified.
Tweedy, a rasping dreamer often deep in his feelings, had developed a reputation in some quarters as Farrar’s sidekick, a more extreme version of the way people who worship John Lennon as a serious artiste sometimes scoff at Paul McCartney’s silly love songs. When Farrar quit Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy immediately set about disproving this thesis. As Farrar launched his own band called Son Volt, their remaining Uncle Tupelo bandmates regrouped as Wilco with Tweedy at the center as their unquestioned leader and immediately cranked out A.M., a wildly catchy batch of pedal-steel-laden pop-rock tracks. Son Volt got off to a good start as well — and even got into VH1 rotation — with 1995’s hearty roots-rock debut Trace. But from there, Wilco’s output suggested that, if anything, Farrar had been holding Tweedy back. (And judging by the way Wilco blew through band members throughout the ensuing decade, Tweedy was not about to let his creative partners get in the way of fulfilling his vision again.)
From its epic opener “Misunderstood” to its raucous closer “Dreamer In My Dreams,” Wilco’s 1996 double album Being There was a case of remarkable ambition fully realized, a tour de force that shined at both its traditional and experimental extremes. Tweedy was showing off just how many things he could do, and how spectacularly he could do them. After a detour to create new songs out of unused Woody Guthrie lyrics with Billy Bragg on 1998’s Mermaid Avenue, Wilco’s discography proper resumed with 1999’s Summerteeth, one of those albums that shrouds increasingly dark subject matter in ever brighter writing and production. Tweedy’s increasingly daring, slyly catchy songs were buoyed by arrangements inspired by the classic pop of the ’60s and ’70s — baroque pop, power-pop, psychedelic pop, just about any pop that could possibly make you feel like you’re listening in Technicolor — and strewn with vivid, hallucinatory lyrics about addiction, mental health struggles, and marital strife. The keyboards were stacked to the heavens; the vocal harmonies fluttered back toward the surface. Another masterpiece was in the bag.
Wilco’s ascent into genius was spurred in part by Jay Bennett, a multi-instrumentalist who joined the band for the making of Being There and quickly became central to Tweedy’s creative process. By Summerteeth, the two of them were holed up in the studio writing and recording together, popping pills all the while, excluding the rest of their bandmates. “There wasn’t really a band, just two guys losing their minds in the studio,” soon-to-be-ousted drummer Ken Coomer once told journalist Greg Kot. This dynamic yielded some incredible music, but by Wilco’s next album cycle it would tear the band apart — a painful sequence, but one oddly fitting for an album that seemed obsessed with tearing apart the sound of Wilco too.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot first hit the internet 20 years ago this Saturday, a week after 9/11 and seven months before its commercial release on April 23, 2002. There is so much story to be told about the album, and it has been told extensively in other venues, most famously in Sam Jones’ documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart and Kot’s Wilco biography Learning How To Die. The backstory sometimes has overshadowed the album itself, but it bears mentioning, if only in passing, because so much of it impacted the music and how it was perceived. First, there was the conflict between Tweedy’s increasingly avant-garde tastes and Coomer’s rigid, old-fashioned approach to drumming, which led to the band replacing him with Glenn Kotche, an experimental wizard whose playing seemed to detach Wilco’s songs from gravity. Then there was the power struggle between Tweedy and Bennett, which led to Bennett’s dismissal from the band at the end of the sessions. Along the way, Tweedy brought in Jim O’Rourke, who’d been working with Tweedy and Kotche in a side project called Loose Fur, and whose mix of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot deconstructed Wilco’s artisanal roots rock, reassembling it as psychedelic sound collage.
Then there was everything that happened between the album’s completion and its release, which helped Yankee Hotel Foxtrot take on mythic status before most people had even heard it. When Wilco turned in the album in summer 2001, their longtime label Reprise Records rejected it, arguing that it lacked potential hits. The band responded by streaming the album for free on their website that September — a bold and uncommon move at the time, and one that probably made the album sound even more experimental for those with dial-up internet connections. Finally, Nonesuch Records — a different imprint from under the same AOL Time Warner umbrella as Reprise — agreed to release YHF and throw their support behind Tweedy’s every artistic impulse. The whole ordeal turned Wilco from folk singers into folk heroes: plucky underdog visionaries who’d been spurned by the record industry but were forging ahead into the future undeterred. It helped that the album was truly spectacular, that it lived up to every rave review and all the “American Radiohead” hyperbole.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album for all hours and all seasons. It sounds incredible at dawn and at dusk, during afternoon barbecues and after-midnight drives, in the oppressive heat of summer and the bitter depths of winter and those glorious transitional phases in between when the air is crisp with possibility. When I’m happy, it elevates my joy. When I’m sad, it accentuates my melancholy. It is the movie I can put on in the background because I’ve seen it a million times but can just as easily end up immersed in all over again. I didn’t have to revisit it to write this retrospective because I’ve never really stopped listening to it.
From the moment that first squealing keyboard drone descends, YHF is a heightened reality to be drifted through — the essence of the classic rock airwaves from back home in Belleville refracted through the bustling Chicago post-rock, jazz, and indie scene that had captured Tweedy’s imagination. This was the era of Tortoise and Califone and Gastr Del Sol and the Sea And Cake. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot pulled as much from that world as it did from Bob Dylan and Big Star. Tweedy remained grounded in the singer-songwriter tradition that had always informed his work, but he was freshly inspired by albums like O’Rourke’s fingerstyle folk opus Bad Timing and a collection of shortwave radio recordings called The Conet Project. (That’s where they got the recurring “yankee… hotel… foxtrot” sample from the noise-bombed finale of “Poor Places.”) The result was a sonic environment where a brisk, poppy crowd-pleaser like “Heavy Metal Drummer” and a dour dirge like “Radio Cure” both made perfect sense, where a Beatles-esque horn section and a Pixies-esque guitar solo could coexist on the same country-fried love song.
“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” a drowsy sprawl that seems to float inches above the city streets, functions as an entryway into the album, setting the vibe for an hour of art-damaged roots-rock songs dotted with surreal imagery. Musically, it’s approachable but unconventional, playing out with a kind of dream logic. As on the rest of the record, Tweedy’s lyrics can be hard to parse, but they make perfect sense emotionally, his deepest anxieties translated into verbal Rorschach blots. Against walls of organ, dazed acoustic strums, and a controlled avalanche of percussion, he begins, “I am an American aquarium drinker/ I assassin down the avenue/ I’m hiding out in the big city blinking/ What was I thinking when I let go of you?” Kotche’s playing stops and starts with a supernatural elasticity, lending structure to the glimmering noise before it all collapses into gorgeous chaos. Before they pull the plug, O’Rourke stitches Tweedy vocals from later in the album into the swirling racket. In the end, all that remains is a shrill high-pitched skree.
“Kamera” reins in much of that wildness but still sounds like a Wilco transformed, pared down to a skeletal minimalism and breathing translucent sighs. From there Yankee Hotel Foxtrot keeps shifting and morphing while maintaining a similar exhausted resilience throughout. In bursts of clarity between his more esoteric musings, Tweedy’s strained but strident tenor channels powerful poetic sentiments: “All my lies are always wishes”; “Every song’s a comeback”; “I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you.” On the philosophical “War On War,” heartland rock becomes krautrock. On the deeply personal “Reservations,” all that rhythmic bombast gives way to a mournful freeform shimmer. There are songs that mostly play it straight, like the soaring, immaculate “Pot Kettle Black,” and ones that descend into absolute madness, like “Poor Places.” And near the center of the tracklist lies “Jesus, etc.,” a tender midtempo glide that strikes some impossible balance between the Eagles and Steve Reich. It may be the finest song of Tweedy’s lifetime, and it continues to turn my orbit around to this day.
Soon after Wilco debuted YHF, people were singing along with its songs at their shows. Clearly the album was connecting with listeners more than the executives had expected. Some observers were also drawing eerie parallels to the terrorist attacks that had struck America a week before the album premiered, especially within the tracklist’s middle stretch. There was “War On War,” with its vision of “moving through the flaming doors” and a promise that “you have to die if you wanna be alive.” There was Tweedy, from within the album’s bleakest depths, saluting “the ashes of American flags.” “Jesus, etc.” in particular, with its visions of tall buildings shaking while voices escaped singing sad, sad songs, paired ominously with cover art featuring twin towers — a photo of Chicago’s iconic Marina City, shot by documentarian Sam Jones. More broadly, the mood of the album seemed to predict the bleary uncertainty of that moment: a depressed, dystopian Americana for a depressed, dystopian America. Yet the album has continued to resonate long after that moment. The sonic splendor they captured here is timeless. The longing they tapped into is too deep to be confined to history.
The relationships people forged with this record were equally deep. Fans each have their personal favorite Wilco albums, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the Wilco album — the one that cemented their stature as one of the all-time great American rock bands. Like Bertrand Goldberg, Wilco had transplanted the countryside into the cityscape and ended up with a striking new composite of urban and rural. It was a breathtaking achievement back then, and two decades later it feels no less impressive. I am not alone when I say Yankee Hotel Foxtrot looms even larger in my life than Marina City looms over Chicago, and I can’t be alone in making a pilgrimage to the riverfront every time I visit to pay homage to my favorite album of all time. Wilco put those towers on their album cover as a tribute to their city, but for those of us under Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s spell, they’ve become a monument to Wilco and the album that made them legends.