It's probably a truism by now that the one thing you can expect from each new Wilco release is the unexpected. When you think you've got 'em pinned down, Tweedy and company zig where you're thinking they're gonna zag. That is as true with "Sky Blue Sky" as anywhere.
Tweedy gave us fans a little preview of where his head was at in his now-famous bit of concert dialogue at the Abbey Pub, in Chicago, on 1/25/2006, where he stated: "I'm really really sick and tired of all this intellectual hoity-toity poetry bull****...I think if we could possibly pull off making this record we're trying to make, this super-dirty-soul record...I think if we can't make this record then the terrorists have truly won." Of course when I heard this clip on the internet accompanied by "That's the Thanks I Get" (which curiously did not make it onto this record) I started expecting a sharp left turn into raw soul music, sort of a loud, brash Solomon Burke-style jam session. In no way does this album sound like what I was picturing. But in its own way this is a soul record, in the sense that it possesses the quality that you find in only the deepest of soul records: honesty.
Let me back up for a minute. I received my advance copy today by sheer luck, more than a month before the record's official release date. Although I usually don't listen to music at work (at this point those two spheres of my life are pretty separate), I gave the entire thing a spin in one sitting. I was both intrigued and disappointed. The friend who gave it to me warned me that it was "mellow," which is a term I have seen floating around the internet to describe the album, and he was right! Far from Solomon Burke, I was hearing Steely Dan circa "Pretzel Logic." Not that this is a bad thing - Pretzel is one of my favorite records of all time in fact - it's just not what I thought I was going to hear. Only "Hate it Here" really grabbed me. For the first time in a decade or more I actually found myself let down by a Wilco record.
But sometimes it takes time for things to happen. Like any relationship worthy of sticking with, you give things a chance. The second half of the record got a second spin at the desk, and the first half in the car on the way home. I even took the long route just to let it sink in. By that point I was beginning to come around. The moment it hit me though was several hours later, when I was washing the dishes after dinner. I started with "Hate it Here" and played it to the end. By the time the final track rolled around I knew I had found a keeper.
The key to understanding this disc is in the lyrics to "What Light," where Tweedy seems to be addressing the attention which his songwriting has garnered. "Just sing what you feel," he croons in his best husky Dylan-esque, "don't let anyone say it's wrong." Later in the song he makes reference to what is "yours" being "everyone's from now on," a fact that is neither "right or wrong." It's this kind of honesty and soul that defines this record, and meshes beautifully with the new, more grounded sound. Tweedy here and throughout the record seems to be doing what soul artists from days past (Otis Redding, for example, or Solomon Burke) have done: that is to sit down, look around, and try to make sense of life. Throughout there is a feeling of recovery, of healing from past wounds and sorting out relationships gone awry. Tweedy asks the hard questions on "Side With the Seeds" and shows a quiet sense of humor and resignation on "Hate it Here." If "A Ghost is Born" was the bad trip, filled with devils, migraines and ten-minute drone-sessions, this is the quiet morning after when you wake up and try to put your life back together.
As for the record's sound, there are all kinds of comparisons you could make. I already pointed out similarities with Steely Dan, but there is also a Josh Rouse-ish feel, and a kind of prog-rockish guitar thing in some songs courtesy of Nels Cline that is often unexpected and sometimes unbelievably spectacular. Tweedy seems to be in full singer-songwriter mode, and suitably the acoustic guitar makes a frequent appearance. If the record has one flaw, it seems to be the fear of making too much noise. At times Tweedy and company seem to be afraid they just might wake the neighbors.
However, this is a small price to pay for a record that contains so much wisdom, that feels so grounded and sane. Tweedy has shed what he considers to be his "hoity-toity poetry" (which actually did lead, in all fairness, to several of the best records in the history of popular music) and has gone back to basics with this set of spare, minimalistic tunes. If there is any controversy swirling around this one, it can only be that he has turned his back on the critics the way he supposedly turned his back on alt-country fans after "Being There." I do expect a possible critical backlash and I'm sure Tweedy will be laughing it up as he readies himself for a tour. Hey crits, there's always Loose Fur to drool over!
In summation of this long, rambly, largely stream-of-consciousness review, this is a record to be ENJOYED. Listen but don't overanalyze. It's that kind of a record.