The Timbre of Empathy: Wilco’s Latest

By
Photography Austin Nelson

Published September 26, 2011

 

WILCO’S JEFF TWEEDY AT CENTRAL PARK SUMMERSTAGE. PHOTO BY AUSTIN NELSON

Wilco played Central Park’s SummerStage on Thursday and Friday nights in anticipation of Tuesday’s release of The Whole Love, the band’s newest album, sating fans with extended sets filled with songs both new and old. Nick Lowe, who penned “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?” and produced a number of Elvis Costello’s albums, opened both nights for at-capacity crowds that even included some of Wilco’s musical peers, like Beck and Michael Stipe.

Wilco has a decade-and-a-half-long tradition of not assaulting listeners with a prospective radio hit as soon as you drop the needle on the first track of their albums. In fact, for over fifteen years, they’ve been secretly manipulating us psychologically, defining the overall mood of their records for you with resolutely selected opening numbers. Wilco’s newest album, The Whole Love, out tomorrow on their newly formed dBpm label, is no exception. The record opens with the seven-minute-plus “Art of Almost,” rolling its way from an introductory syncopated drumbeat fused with programmed loops, drones, beeps and synthesizer arpeggios to a brief string interlude that quickly heels to singer Jeff Tweedy’s voice.

From the first measures of the album you can tell this was a striving and determined feat of production and engineering. Tweedy produced the record along with bandmate Patrick Sansone and veteran engineer and producer Tom Schick in the band’s studio, The Loft, in Chicago, where they have an arsenal of musical instruments at their immediate disposal. Sometimes the instruments are bathed in effects, and sometimes you can hear finger pads on acoustic guitar strings. Sometimes the vocals seem bare-bones, and sometimes they’re doubled in different registers and cushioned with reverb. Wilco have become masters of recording, layering sonic textures and at times creating designed musical chaos that they can then tame and keep on a tight leash.

The album’s tracks take you through spaces and atmospheres, cities and carnivals, and both the authentic and stream-of-consciousness developments of Tweedy’s lyrics, all of which seem impossible not to relate to. It’s hard to nail down a historical musical comparison for The Whole Love because the hints of influences from other classics have transformed by the time you think you’ve put your finger on what a bridge or chorus reminds you of. At times you find yourself thinking, “This sounds like Pink Floyd” or “late Beatles” or “a sort of post-punk Beach Boys”—but mostly you just find yourself saying, “Yeah, this is Wilco.”

THE WHOLE LOVE IS OUT TOMORROW.