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Album review: Wilco, 'The Whole Love'

Greg Kot

11:29 PM CDT, September 21, 2011

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3 stars (out of 4)

After seven studio albums, capped by the summing-up statement “Wilco (The Album)” in 2009, the Chicago band seemed to be out of surprises. The music had soul and low-key integrity, but had turned predictable. So it’s gratifying to find that assumption shattered from the get-go on “The Whole Love,” the sextet's first album for its homemade label, dBpm.

Opener “Art of Almost” is a seven-minute sound collage that plays with the listener’s expectations in a way that Wilco hasn’t since “A Ghost is Born” (2004).

The first sound on the album is the crackle of static over a fragmented beat. Keyboards shudder into the mix, and Tweedy sings from the middle of a parched landscape of strange sound effects: “I can’t be so far away from my wasteland.” Distorted chords suggest muffled gun shots. Percussion percolates and then glides into a steady electronic pulse as if out of a science-fiction soundtrack. It’s a movie playing out between the headphones, and then after four minutes the scene dramatically shifts. A guitar drones, then breaks into a sprint, racing alongside drums and a rollercoaster bass line to a thrilling finish.

“Art of Almost” is an exciting, if instantly divisive song, like “Misunderstood” or “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” from an earlier phase in Wilco’s career. There’s nothing else quite like it on the album, but it serves as a timely reminder that Wilco is still a long way from coasting into its middle years.

The uptempo “I Might” amplifies that impulse. John Stirratt’s overdriven bass rips through the speakers like a rusty saw, and Tweedy issues a threat over bright garage-rock organ chords: “You won’t set the kids on fire/But I might.”

“Sunloathe” sounds like the aftermath of a long night, the narrator too exhausted or too narcotized to do anything more than blink into a remorseless sun. His voice drifts in and out of a dream-like atmosphere of twinkling keyboards, disembodied guitars and wordless vocal harmonies. It’s a whirring slice of Beatles’ chamber pop, with Tweedy delivering a final kiss-off: “I don’t want to lose this fight/I don’t want to end this fight/Goodbye.”

After that bracing beginning, the middle of the album is more workmanlike: The autumnal folk of “Black Moon” and “Rising Red Lung,” the country ballad “Open Mind,” the jaunty vaudeville of “Capitol City,” the arena-rock chords of “Standing O.” It’s not exactly Wilco by numbers, but it feels tame in comparison to the first three tracks.

Yet, as a sheer sound experience, “The Whole Love” is rewarding, a tapestry of tiny details that invites close listening. On most of the songs, Tweedy indulges in lyrics that blur the line between nonsense and poetry, revelation and obfuscation. The words, it turns out, are really mostly about sound rather than sense. So it’s no surprise that he speaks through the band most clearly. As the album’s producer with keyboardist Patrick Sansone and engineer Tom Schick, Tweedy uses the band’s Northwest Side recording studio as another instrument to complement, enhance and distort the musicianship.

Stirratt, besides Tweedy the band’s sole constant since its inception in 1994, is an anchoring force, his bass playing consistently brilliant. The keyboards of Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen color in a wealth of detail, Glenn Kotche’s drumming adds orchestral flair, and Nels Cline gets a bit more room to roam on guitar.

It all comes together on the final song, “One Sunday Morning.” Over 12 patient minutes, Tweedy tells a tale of familial conflict, death and regret amid a cocoon of acoustic guitars and piano. It’s a poetic narrative that recalls Wilco’s take on Woody Guthrie’s “Remember the Mountain Bed.” The song winds down and then back up, a hypnotic pattern of decline and rejuvenation that mirrors life itself. It makes for a quietly stunning bookend to the opening track’s take-it-or-leave-it boldness.  

greg@gregkot.com