Wilco - Sky Blue Sky

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Wilco Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)

My immediate reaction to Sky Blue Sky was unrelentingly harsh. I wanted to defile this music with the most grotesque adjectives and least flattering analogies known to man. Wilco seemed to have spat in my face, and I was mad enough to ignore the fact that, given their accomplishments so far, they're pretty much beyond reproach at this point. After churning out three straight classic albums, including one of the finest records of all time, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the alt-country band-turned-"American Radiohead" had faltered a bit with 2004's A Ghost Is Born, an indulgent but ultimately satisfying platter of noodles and pain medication. But there was only fleeting reason to doubt Wilco's long-term artistic vitality, especially considering the continued infusion of new talent with avant guitarist Nels Cline and utility man Pat Sansone. Then this album surfaced online in the early months of this year, and its pedestrian sounds were as deflating—and infuriating—as shards of glass strewn across the highway.

Sky Blue Sky emphasizes the worst elements of Ghost and Being There—mild guitar wankery and hackneyed, NPR-friendly alt-country templates—en route to delivering the monumentally underwhelming sound of Wilco without balls. If previous releases were challenging for their stalwart insistence on trying something new, this one presented only the challenge of finding a silver lining in safe, unadventurous songs.

This was shocking; how could Wilco, after assembling the most avant-garde membership in its history, retreat so meekly into the sound of sleepy Americana? But more than shock, I felt resignation. Like so many musical beacons before, Wilco had passed its prime. Finally happy, healthy and on track after years of migraines and drug addiction, Jeff Tweedy had shifted toward the kind of music satisfied people make—complacent, comfortable and completely uninspiring. Maybe Sky Blue Sky passes muster as a Wilco B-sides collection, but for a band that usually deals in transcendent epics, this is cut-rate stuff.

Loose Fur might be partially to blame for Wilco's decline. The side band, featuring Tweedy, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and kindred spirit Jim O'Rourke, put out one of the best releases of last year with Born Again in the USA. The record showed a perfect balance of the trio's pop and experimental leanings and used them in the framework of some of Tweedy's best songs since YHF. Had some of those tunes popped up on Sky Blue Sky, they likely would have added some spice to the prevailing blandness and allowed this album's stronger selections a little room to breathe. Instead, everything sounds fairly similar, nothing stands out, and they're left with a side project that's outperforming the main meal ticket.

Tweedy might have anticipated this reaction when he sang, on one of the album's weakest songs, "You're gonna need to be patient with me." To a certain extent, he's right. Over time, Sky Blue Sky has revealed enough hidden beauty to convince me that this band isn't a lost cause. Almost every track has some redeeming qualities; Tweedy is too good a songwriter to completely lose the plot, and his band is too skilled to create meritless arrangements for 12 songs. So even if the accumulated effect of 51 minutes of Sky Blue Sky is a wandering mind, closer examination shows a series of small successes.

Opening pair "Either Way" and "You Are My Face" don't make for an emphatic kickoff, but both are well-crafted songs that make good use of the limited dynamic range they inhabit. "Impossible Germany" is catchy, but it wears out its welcome with endless guitar soloing. "Hate It Here," "Walken" and "Shake It Off" are authorative, soulful rock tracks. Cline pulls his weight with the guitar heroics of "Side With the Seeds." And the record ends strong with the gorgeous "What Light" and "On and On and On."

If all that praise makes Sky Blue Sky sound like a good album, well, it's not a bad album. That's certainly more than I would have said for it a few months ago, so let's call it a grower, too. It presents a newer, tamer version of Wilco, one that doesn't make me swoon in musical ecstasy but simply gets the job done, often in immediately forgettable ways. History suggests the next album will bring a welcome left turn; let's hope so because on this album, Tweedy and band seemed to be operating under the title track's mantra: "I survived. That's good enough for now."

Grade: C Download: "What Light," "On and On and On" Web: wilcoworld.net