Wilco already released a country double-album. A quarter-century ago, backed by bassist John Stirratt and an otherwise different cast of bandmates than they share now, Jeff Tweedy kicked out two discs’ worth of incredible songs that pulled him out of Jay Farrar’s shadow forever. Being There was a tour de force not many saw coming on the heels of Wilco’s solid, straightforward debut A.M.: effortlessly toggling from somber twang like “Far, Far Away” to rootsy power-pop like “Monday,” pouring Tweedy’s bleeding heart out into tender sweetness and barroom bravado alike, making room for epic excursions like the drowsy “Sunken Treasure.” From the very first track, when the glassy-eyed ballad “Misunderstood” rumbled to life like hulking machinery and built to its thunderous finale, it was clear that Tweedy was destined to be much more than the other guy in Uncle Tupelo.
Though they spent the album pushing against (and sometimes obliterating) the genre’s assumed boundaries, country was baked into Wilco’s sound at the time. The double-album format, though, was an organizing principle chosen to make a statement: Tweedy famously insisted that Being There be split into two halves even though its 19 songs would have fit on one CD, even accepting a pay cut to make it happen. The circumstances are flipped for Cruel Country, the behemoth collection Wilco are releasing this week. Nowadays fans seem more likely to buy a new Wilco album on vinyl, a format that demands these 78 minutes of music be divided into two records. This time the creative conceit is country music itself — according to Tweedy, the album is a full-fledged embrace of a descriptor this band has never been fully comfortable with.
“Wilco go country” is more of a thought exercise here than a functional reality. There’s a bit more pedal steel and slide guitar on these 21 songs than we’ve heard from the band lately, but compared to, say, Mermaid Avenue — on which Wilco and Billy Bragg wrote music for unused Woody Guthrie song lyrics — Cruel Country does not stand out as an especially twangy effort. In tone and disposition, it’s not so different from any other album Tweedy has released in the last half-decade or so — another entry in his catalog’s bleary, meditative long tail. There’s definitely a consistent vibe across the tracklist, but what unifies these 21 songs more than adherence to a particular genre is that, for the first time since 2007’s dreamy, noodly Sky Blue Sky, the six members of Wilco recorded live together in a room.
The results are not as immediate as that premise implies. Cruel Country is not going to blow you away like that run of Wilco albums from Being There through [whenever you, personally, decided Wilco stopped making masterpieces]. It might actually bore you, depending on your mood. Yet the more time I spend with the album, the more I love it. The most old-fashioned aspect of Cruel Country is not the live recording or the loose genre framework — it’s that the best way to listen to the album might be curled up with the words on the page, giving the music your full focus. These songs reward deep, active listening. At the moment I feel like they comprise Tweedy’s best collection of lyrics to date. In terms of writing, arrangement, and performance, it’s a masterful display of subtlety.
Groan at that if you want. Sometimes I want to groan at it myself. I don’t think I will ever prefer this older, more mature version of Wilco over the ambitious unit that once took big swings like “Misunderstood” and “Via Chicago” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” I miss the way their albums used to explode from the speakers with energy and ideas and hooks. I miss when they rocked hard and when they seemed to be dissecting the concept of rock music in real time. I miss the old adventurous spirit, the way they used to reinvent themselves on each new album. Thus, I wouldn’t blame anyone for skipping over the new material and sticking to the classics where Wilco are concerned; there’s more than enough genius back there to sustain a lifetime of fandom. Still, when I make my peace with where Tweedy is at now as a songwriter — when I listen to his new album on its own terms, not as a way of chasing those old thrills — I am deeply impressed.
Whether penning wry rock tunes or warm-hearted ballads, Tweedy’s default for a few albums now has been the musical equivalent of a sigh — sometimes exhausted, sometimes contented, but almost universally low-key, rendered in various shades of greyscale and sepiatone by Tweedy and co-producer Tom Schick. Wilco’s last album, 2019’s Ode To Joy, brought some Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era studio tinkering to bear on this era of his writing, with stellar results. It was my favorite Wilco album in a long, long time, but some listeners shrugged it off as one more dreary exercise in diminishing returns. (I don’t know how someone could listen to “Before Us” or “Hold Me Anyway” and think that, but I digress.)
Again produced by Tweedy and Schick, Cruel Country’s methodology takes things in the other direction, with minimal overdubs, few grand gestures, and little to no sonic deconstruction. There’s a lot going on in these songs — gorgeous instrumental flourishes, thought-provoking turns of phrase — but they don’t go out of their way to attract your attention. There isn’t even really a moment when Tweedy or Nels Cline goes nuts on the guitar or Glenn Kotche’s drumming defies the laws of physics. The album is long, too, and despite its fine-tuned gear-shifts, from graceful ramblers (“I Am My Mother,” “All Across The World”) to weary slow-drifts (“Cruel Country,” “Darkness Is Cheap”) to barebones acoustic balladry (“Ambulance,” “The Universe”), it can feel a little slow and samey when you’re not on its wavelength. Listening through is kind of like getting stuck behind someone ambling down the sidewalk at their own pace; you either decide to blow past them, or you stick around and strike up a conversation.
If you’re open to being wowed by beauty without being bashed over the head with it, clear out a couple hours and take the time to make friends with Cruel Country. Cline, Pat Sansone, and Mikael Jorgensen shade in these tunes with so many lovely accents, and the band still understands how to combine into a dazzling overflow of sound when the moment demands it. More than once the music calls back to previous Wilco songs: The sparkling “Tired Of Taking It Out On You” is like a grownup “Via Chicago” that never implodes; “The Empty Condor” taps into the desolation of “Radio Cure”; “Mystery Binds” is a more high-strung “How To Fight Loneliness”; the first half of the eight-minute stunner “Many Worlds” is a return to the bleak yet hopeful realm of “Reservations”; there’s more than a little “She’s A Jar”-style maudlin splendor in “Country Song Upside Down.” Yet the band is too present and alive to merely revisit past glories. I love the way “Tonight’s The Day” flickers into twinkly disarray from time to time before snapping back into focus. I love the nylon guitar that spills over “The Plains” like tumbleweeds. I love the flashes of saloon piano and wiry guitar and galloping drums that float around the edges of “All Across The World.” I love the squiggly Sky Blue Sky guitars that spiral through the background of “Mystery Binds.”
More than anything, I love the lyrics. I want to blockquote whole songs in this review. Tweedy has gotten so good at abstracting his musings on the state of the world (and on his own little world) just enough to send the mind reeling. He gives me enough glimpses of raw humanity to knock me on my ass, yet they tend to be presented just obliquely and poetically enough that they inspire moments of searching contemplation too. One way to interpret the title Cruel Country is as a condemnation of these United States, and there’s certainly evidence for that reading on the lyrics sheet. The first few songs in particular feel overtly political, strewn with slogans like “Dangerous dreams have been detected streaming over the southern border” and “There is no middle when the other side would rather kill than compromise” and “I love my country, stupid and cruel.” After a run of headlines like we’ve seen lately, that last one stings.
Yet this isn’t a case of a staunch progressive scoring easy points with his constituency. The best lines on Cruel Country blur the line between the confessional, the philosophical, and the impressionistic. Tweedy stacks up similes on “Bird Without A Tail – Base Of My Skull” like it’s some kind of morbid adult nursery rhyme. His insights into the messiness of married life continue to ring true: “Between good and bad/ And what is true/ Between happy and sad/ I choose you,” he reflects on “Tonight’s The Day,” while “Please Be Wrong” flexes a rare directness: “Please be wrong/ About me/ Being the one/ Causing all of your pain.” The best of these domestic dispatches may be the strummy, shimmery “Sad Kind Of Way,” on which “The best I can do/ Is try to be happy for you/ In a sad kinda way” becomes “The best I’ll ever be/ Is the beauty you see in me/ In a sad kinda way.”
Tweedy can still elicit a smile, too, as in this scene from the Dylan-esque character sketch “Ambulance”: “Trying not to laugh/ They pronounced me dead at half past/ And that priest he pissed his pants/ When he heard me start to say hello.” He can go fully surreal, as on “Country Song Upside Down”: “I found a song, upside down/ A country song, like a trout/ Dying sky and water/ Rainbow flickering out.” Even when he borders on Jack Handey faux-profundity, as on the Big Star-worthy dirge “The Universe,” it lands: “The universe could be worse/ It’s the only place there is to be.” I still swear by the inspired nonsense he was spitting back in the YHF days, but he is leagues beyond that approach now.
I hate to make Cruel Country sound like an “eat your vegetables” situation. It’s a great album, full stop. The deeper I dig into it, the more I love it. I love it more now than I did when I started writing this review. Some of the most staggering Wilco songs of the past decade are buried deep into its second disc, where no impatient listener will discover them. There are plenty of amazing songs before that, too. Pretty much all of them have snuck up on me at some point, tracks that went in one ear and out the other at first, suddenly breaking through the fog and taking my breath away. But I’m not sure I would have appreciated most of this material when I was younger. But then, I didn’t much care for fresh produce in those days either. My palate wasn’t mature enough. The older I get, the more I realize how spectacular vegetables can be.
Cruel Country is out 5/27 on dBpm. Pre-order the digital version here.