While creating this list, I went back and forth about this album. Not because it’s not as good as some other Wilco album. It had to do with the rules I set up. One album per band/artist. Having this meant leaving off of Mermaid Avenue Vol. 1, the incredible collaboration Wilco did with Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie’s lyrics. Ultimately, I chose this gem, deciding that the Bragg collaboration, while genius, may be too politically strident.
Yes, I say that with a completely straight face. A mere three albums after Green Day eviscerated the Bush administration on record. And more to come.
The album is the most controversial in the band’s career for reasons most people don’t know or wouldn’t ever consider a real problem. I mean, it sold a meager 500,000 copies. But original label Reprise refused to release the album. Truth be told, the subsequent actions of the label were really kind of nice for a heartless bunch of execs, as they handed over the album rights for free. Wilco signed with Nonesuch and put the album out.
It is simply a brilliant record. I was never the biggest fan of Jeff Tweedy’s first band, the overpraised Uncle Tupelo, and I was dismissive of Wilco’s own work, except for the Mermaid Avenue albums the band did with personal hero Billy Bragg. I have no idea why that was the case, as my list is developing a distinct “alt country” flavour.But from the moment I heard Tweedy croak his way through “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, a mesmerizing piece of sonic mess and bleak lyrical moping that ends with feedback, I suddenly became a devoted Wilco fan.
That depression leads into “Kamera”, one of the cheeriest songs Tweedy and the late and missed Jay Bennett ever wrote, and it continues on with its startling set ups. The album goes from light to dark and back again with surprising ease, and the band is musically adventurous without coming across as unfocused. Maybe because the Woody Guthrie tendencies of the band are the very foundation of their sound, and everything on top of it is just candy.
Much has been made about this albums mythology- it seems to be the seminal record about September 11th, even though it was written entirely before that date. In fact, 9-11-01 was the original release date for the record, but it was delayed until April 2002. References about tall buildings shaking, ashes of the American flag- it is not an album that looks fondly at the American culture it is apart of.
I was pregnant with my youngest child when I first heard this album, and Wilco remains one of her favourite bands. Maybe that explains the fond memories. Whether it’s the funkier “Heavy Metal Drummer” or the gentle country twang of “Ashes of the American Flag” or Tweedy’s lyrical motif about cigarettes, it is an album full of unique touches, a vastly improved product from Summerteeth.
The album ends with the epic hymn-like “Reservations”, a rich song filled with smart musical touches, ending the album as adventurously as it began, only with less melancholy and more self-awareness. It’s a gem of a record, and one that is rightfully placed among the best ever.