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Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Nonesuch, 2002

Rating: 5.0

 

 

Posted: May 7, 2002

By Laurence Station

Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (YHF) comes with a lot of baggage. Recorded during the first half of 2001, the album was initially slated for a summer release by the band's label, Reprise, only to be pushed back, and finally dropped altogether. Certain executives at Reprise felt the record was too inaccessible and needed changes. Wilco staunchly refused to alter a single note. Fortunately for the group, and the rest of us, Reprise allowed Wilco to buy back the master tapes and shop YHF to other labels. Enter Nonesuch (ironically, like Reprise, a Warner Brothers subsidiary), which agreed to put out the record as Wilco intended. Chalk one up for those who stick to their guns, because YHF is not only Wilco's finest achievement to date, but a bona fide masterpiece as well.

Drawing inspiration from such diverse sources as Chicago's famed Marina Towers (which eventually wound up as the cover shot) to the Conet Project, a four-disc collection of mysterious shortwave radio transmissions that may or may not be Cold War-era governments passing coded messages to remote agents, YHF is the culmination of Wilco's musical vision as well as a fascinating mediation on how we communicate in an increasingly complicated world.

Whereas Wilco’s Being There (1996) was a refinement (of quantum leap proportions, actually) over the band’s 1995 debut, A.M., (thanks primarily to the addition of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett), YHF can be seen as a clearer distillation of the marvelously listenable but overproduced Summerteeth (1999). YHF clarifies all the ideas about chaos, love and the perils of success that ringleader Jeff Tweedy's explored on earlier efforts, while Jim O'Rourke's production reigns in the indulgent tendencies evident on the prior releases, making for a tightly focused yet intricately layered work. Sadly, Jay Bennett left Wilco after the completion of the record and the future sound of the band will certainly be measured against the lack of his presence.

"I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" opens YHF with a brooding, drum-laden buildup that bears similarities to, and improves on, Being There's bombastic lead track "Misunderstood." A ringing alarm clock and disquieting piano bars tickle unpleasant memories from our narrator after he awakens from an all night bender ("American aquarium drinker") and recalls -- with stinging clarity -- his actions from the previous evening. After venturing off to torpedo a budding relationship ("I assassin down the avenue"), he eventually passed out, but not before proclaiming his true feelings for the person he'd just pushed away ("I'm the man who loves you"). "I Am Trying…" perfectly encapsulates a man who's only happy being miserable, working hard to cripple an otherwise promising relationship.

"Radio Cure" could be about the same man, sober now and trying to get back what was lost; not self-pitying, but owning up to his obvious shortcomings, taking responsibility for his actions and acknowledging that "distance has no way of making love understandable," as radio static crackles in the background. "War On War" tackles optimism in the face of adversity, its opening acoustic strum giving way to radio squawks and hissing bleats interwoven with feedback drenched turmoil. Through all that hope shines through: "You have to learn how to die/If you wanna wanna be alive." "Jesus, Etc." with its soulful horns and earnest plea that "our love is all we have," reinforces the album's central theme of the stark division between the loved and unloved, contrasting it with a celestial hierarchy separating bright stars from dying suns.

"Ashes Of American Flags," sporting a windswept, spaciously played and patiently introspective structure, exposes Tweedy at his most profoundly understated ("I know I would die/If I could come back new") and with a penchant for making the most mundane observations sound positively epic: "I could spend three dollars/and sixty-three cents/on diet coca-cola/and unlit cigarettes."

The peak track (and thematic center) of YHF is "I'm The Man Who Loves You," a lurching coda to the album's opener. Reiterating the closing drunken slur from "I Am Trying..." the song's dirty, ragged guitar breaks punctuate the narrator's efforts to write a letter of reconciliation to his departed lover, crumpling up sheet after sheet but slowly gaining confidence in his titular statement of purpose by song's end.

The penultimate “Poor Places” contains some of the most insightful, heartfelt lyrics Tweedy’s yet penned, while the closing "Reservations" warbles drowsily in a slightly off-kilter, drifting-off-to-sleep as-the-TV-plays manner that offers a final promise, tinged with uncertainty as a brooding storm rolls in: "I've got reservations about so many things/But not about you."

There's an overcast density to YHF that makes for some heavy slogging at points. Fortunately, more upbeat tracks, like "Kamera," "Heavy Metal Drummer" and "Pot Kettle Black," are smartly sequenced and keep matters from becoming overly moribund.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is weighty in its ideas and execution, but it's hardly dour, offering an optimistic outlook throughout. It does, however, demand close listening. Not to say that it should be relegated to the insular domain of "headphone music," but there's a lot happening here. It's to O'Rourke's and Tweedy's credit that the final mix never gets too top heavy. And, unlike the furtive numbers stations filling the Conet Project that inspired it, YHF does more than zip across the airwaves and then vanish -- a one-way communication offering no hope of a reply. It exists just as the band intended, spared from languishing in some anonymous vault for countless years before finally reaching the masses. That alone is a triumph worth broadcasting to all willing to listen.

 
Wilco Film
For those interested in the ultimate, unscripted behind the scenes look at the creation of an album, Sam Jones' film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart documents the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, from the initial recording of the songs, through the postproduction process, and eventual break with the record company.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
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