By: Dennis Cook
My lord, this is lovely. Oh, there are outbreaks of electrical squall and curiously beveled edges but the foundation is down feather comforting, easy to sink back into again and again. Wilco hasn't been this inviting since, A.M., their 1995 debut. Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch) shows the confidence of years. There's less bells and whistles because the songs are so bloody good, so plainly appealing, that the oddball spicing of the past simply isn't necessary.
This is their most baldly enjoyable disc yet. From the laidback Beatles-y swing of "Hate It Here" to the softly puzzled springiness of "Either Way," it sounds like Wilco is having fun. Jeff Tweedy's voice is touched by a passion and invention stronger than anything we've heard before. The care lavished on seemingly small decisions – the timbre of an upright piano or the brightness of the vibes – is obvious. This lineup possesses a finely tuned acumen for where to place a solo and how long it should be for maximum effect. Everywhere one senses the hands of genuine pros working their craft with clockwork precision.
Not to worry, everything isn't too smooth. Gruff choruses and subtle, compelling six-string action balance the romantic jazz-rock vibe. This studio debut for guitarist's guitarist Nels Cline finds the often bizarro axe man harnessing his strange super powers for the greater good. The brevity and potency of his statements is exhilarating. By plucking a few wild hairs he's actually opened up even more facets in his playing. Even his days with cult greats The Geraldine Fibbers only hinted at his compact brilliance here.
On the surface, these may seem like straight rock tunes but Sky Blue Sky has the same inspired, unexpected shifts in dynamics one associates with Led Zeppelin. It's there in the barbed guitar solo that pours from the sweet lil' gray cloud of "You Are My Face," and again in the way "Impossible Germany" moves from its angular, Krautrockie start to something resembling post-Duane Allman Brothers with Dickey Betts leading charge. One senses this set was designed to serve Wilco's increasingly excellent live shows, and there's little doubt they're going to have a ball developing this stuff in concert.
Reactions to new Wilco are almost always based on personal taste rather than anything the band does. For my own part, I haven't been as interested since Summerteeth but the closing quartet here – "Leave Me (Like You Found Me)," "Walken," "What Light" and "On and On and On" - made me think human beings aren't all bad if they're capable of such beauty and vulnerability, such scarred-but-smarter understanding. Wilco is always easy to admire. The artistry of A Ghost Is Born or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is undeniable but give it a little time and I bet Sky Blue Sky will be the one you reach for next time you need a fix.
JamBase | Chicago
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