Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
The only kind of airplay I remember Wilco ever getting on Much Music in the 90’s was for their “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” video in which the members performed the song in freefall with parachutes on their backs. It was a fun little alt rock song, but it sounded like the kind of thing hundreds of bands were doing at that time and I never picked up the record. Over the years, Wilco built up a reputation among many devoted fans. When “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” came out in 2002, I downloaded it, listened to it once or twice and gave it a pass. Wilco still weren’t really my thing.
There were a couple of songs that stuck with me – the scraggly, Sgt. Pepperish “I’m the Man who Loves You” and pop gem “Heavy Metal Drummer” – enough to know them when I’d hear them again. I have several friends who have long been on the Wilco bandwagon. I’d listen to their pointed conversations about set list choices and all things Jeff Tweedy. The pure mention of a song title would seem to evoke a rush of instant recognition and feeling. The words “alt country” would always put me off and I never gave the band another chance until recently.
My friend Peter came over in March of this year with a pirated copy of “I Am Trying to Break your Heart,” a documentary about the production of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and dramatic fallout in which now deceased multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett was unceremoniously ousted from the band. The tone of the film struck something in me, as did the songs, especially as I was in the midst of writing some of my own material for the first time in years. I found the band’s approach to taking a song and exposing it to different levels of interpretation inspiring. It taught me something about music that I hadn’t realized before: that a song is never simply a song, but a layering of ideas that can be altered at will, modified necessarily and even beaten into submission.
There’s no other way to describe my affection for “Radio Cure,” a song that isn’t really a song at all, but is still one of the most beautiful I’ve heard – barely-there percussion sounds dreamily under the landscape of a strummed acoustic while synth, banjo and piano elements occasionally pierce through. It’s hard to believe it’s the same band who wrote “Outtasite (Outta Mind).” Not all of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s” songs shun the straightforward, but each plays with textures that are unique from song to song. The vibrato of violin strings on “Jesus, Etc.,” the heartbroken psychedelia of “Ashes of American Flags,” the drum machine that controversially kicks off “Heavy Metal Drummer” – each song tries something new and miraculously succeeds.
Tweedy’s poetic lyrics are endlessly rich throughout, at their strongest in the anthemic opener “I Am Trying to Break your Heart,” with its persistent verse-verse-verse-verse-verse-chorus-verse structure and sporadic yet powerful drumming, and “Poor Places,” in which Tweedy delivers one of his most personal reflections on his own artistic temperament (“There’s bourbon on the breath of the singer you love so much/He takes all the words from the books that you don’t read anyway”) and the band get themselves into legal trouble with an unlicensed, atmospheric sample of a phonetic alphabet reading. “Kamera” and “Pot Kettle Black” are tempered acoustic pop songs stripped back from livelier versions, sustaining the album’s heart and muted playfulness into last track “Reservations,” a slow, lengthy, simple expression of faith in a lover.
The band would play around with noise elements a little more freely on follow-up “A Ghost is Born,” but there’s a perfect balance struck on “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” between the rock n’ roll song and chaos. The professional and personal drama surrounding the album elevates it to the status of modern rock mythology. Effectively, Wilco were paid thousands to record an album that their label dropped, only to have a subsidiary buy the album back. Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke said it best:
“This is a record. This is something that probably someone will buy. They’ll pay 15, 16 or whatever bucks for it. And that’s cool, but what’s encoded somewhere on the bottom of this thing, this dopey little disc – that’s what matters. This, the artifact, the actual object does not. What’s encoded in here, if it’s any good, you’ll hear it. And you’ll either get it, or you won’t. As a writer, as a fan, as a guy who just listens to music a lot… If you don’t get it, I just think that’s kind of too bad.”
Wilco perform “Heavy Metal Drummer” (from “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”):