Wilco has always been a band more than willing to change things up to fit whatever wild musical direction they felt like pursuing. From the sunny pop harmonies of Summerteeth, to their oscillating experimentalist rock on A Ghost is Born, to the big middle finger to the music industry that was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Jeff Tweedy and company have not been content to sit on their laurels. That's why it was a little disheartening to hear their 2007 work Sky Blue Sky, a record rightly criticized for its fairly tame material and, dare I say it, a boring Wilco record.
That isn't to say Wilco is at their best when they're experimenting or throwing all songwriting conventions to the wind; indeed, Summerteeth more than proved this band had the chops to make bright `70s pop their own, and opener "Wilco (The Song)" only supports them further. As Tweedy asks "are times getting tough / are the roads you travel rough" over a crunching backbeat and guitarist Nels Cline's distorted shrill, it's even more obvious than after Sky Blue Sky that Tweedy has left his millennial demons behind him. When the chorus of "Wilco, Wilco, Wilco will love you, baby" hits, it fires off the album in the best kind of pop direction, one bursting with vibrancy and the kind of energy the band seemed to lack on their last effort.
It's hard to pigeonhole Wilco in any other way other than their clear energy, as, much like the band's discography, things change quick here. "Deeper Down" is an intricately fingerpicked exercise in how to build atmosphere, while a song like "Sunny Feeling" builds itself around another sinuous riff by Cline (whose distinctive guitar work is truly the highlight of the musicians here) and a charged performance by Tweedy. The lovely "You and I," meanwhile, is a simple acoustic duet with Feist that initially seems like it's going to choke on cloying amounts of sweetness, but the sincere lyrics ("I think we can take it / all the good with the bad / make something that no one else has") and the unexpectedly natural pairing that Feist and Tweedy make turns it into the album's heartwarming center.
If "You and I" is the heart, then the stunningly crafted "Bull Black Nova" is the dark, twisted brain behind Wilco's talent. Part "Via Chicago" and part "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," the tale of spousal homicide is equally a haunting confessional and an instrumental showcase, particularly past the midpoint where Cline puts on a virtuoso solo that is undeniably Wilco. Tweedy's lyrics are as grainy and real as a black-and-white crime scene photograph, his protagonist worrying "it's my hair / there's blood in the sink / I can't calm down, I can't think" before the guitars coalesce into a distorted, needling whirl and Tweedy sums everything up with a wild shriek: "I freak out / oh black out."
A few songs, however, betray Wilco's lazier tendencies, particularly first single "You Never Know." The tinkling pianos and arena rock riffs showcase the worst from Sky Blue Sky's MOR-ready malaise, and the chorus lacks the kind of rushing energy of "Wilco (The Song)." "I'll Fight" largely falls into the same lite-rock morass, although this time it's Tweedy's uninspired lyrics ("I'll go, I'll go, I'll go, I'll go, I'll go for you / I will" goes the chorus) that doom the song. And it's a shame that the album has to end on the cheesy whimper that is "Everlasting Everything," where Tweedy spouts such wise sentiments as "everything alive must die / every building built to the sky will fall" and the most exciting part is the trippy guitar confetti Cline throws on the end of the track.
But for most of Wilco, the band is more than up to the task of again opening up a new chapter in their history, one that calls up shadows of their past in songs like the mournful, double-tracked "Solitaire" and simultaneously proves that the band are striking out for new territory, like in the uncharacteristically optimistic titular song or the charming "You and I." By balancing the best of their pop sensibilities with their irresistible creative energies, Wilco have made their most confident record, one nearly brimming, even for all its flaws, with possibilities for the future.