Wilco, 'Sky Blue Sky' (Nonesuch)

8
Sky Blue Sky
Critical Mass
Label: Nonesuch

by Will Hermes

The pastorale LP is a rock'n'roll tradition. It's what happens when a band -- motivated by tinnitus, bankruptcy, drug-crazed meltdowns, or merely an aesthetic conversion -- strips things down to the gentle, the pretty, the chillin'-by-the-fishin'-hole-with-my-Martin-D50-acoustic-which-incidently-is-worth-ten-times-what-you-paid-for-your-car. Rock pastorales usually follow darker, noisier records and tend toward the soberly optimistic, or at least the comfortably fatalistic, offering up salt-of-the-earth verities about life and death and love and loss. The Grateful Dead had Workingman's Dead. Springsteen had Nebraska. Nirvana had MTV Unplugged in New York. Now Wilco -- in their continuing quest to rank with rock's Big Machers -- have Sky Blue Sky. Build a campfire and break out the pot brownies.

Or not. "Maybe the sun will shine today / The clouds will blow away," sings Jeff Tweedy to begin his first studio record since a prescription-drug rehab stint in 2004. "I will try to understand / Everything has its plan." There's a faint 12-step, one-day-at-a-time vibe to many of the songs here, with lyrics about being "strung out like a kite," about survival and redemption and being thankful and maybe higher powers. Of course, in these Britney-head-shaving days, this is our cultural lingua franca as much as it is addict-speak. Welcome to the group, and thanks for sharing.

Wilco have always seemed like a band looking for an identity -- or avoiding one. That was part of their charm, and Tweedy's slightly spooky Midwestern blankness lent itself to all sorts of settings. But here's the album you might've expected from this former alt-country poster boy before he started getting all experimental on 1999's Summerteeth. Sky Blue Sky is basically an urbane roots record, flooded with sunny, ragtimey melodies, chooglin' Southern-rock grooves, slightly off-kilter song structures, swirling organ riffs, and sparkling guitar lines. The sprouting jam-band vibe of 2004's A Ghost Is Born fully blooms here, minus all the wanking. Experiment-minded producer/player/mixologist Jim O'Rourke, a major influence on Ghost and the band's pivotal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is mostly sidelined. Up front is alt-country/out-jazz guitar god Nels Cline, playing so tastefully he sounds as if he were on loan from Steely Dan, when he's not channeling Jerry Garcia. Between him, Tweedy, and third guitarist/keyboardist Pat Sansone, they've made the most beguiling guitar-rock record of the 21st century.

Sky Blue Sky ain't all blue skies. Its bliss is blistered; loneliness lurks behind love, war shadows art. But like a new yoga convert, it is determined, and its happiness feels hard won. After a handful of listens, I only wish the songs were more indelible, though they're comfy as worn sweatshirts. But time may prove their durability. As is, this is a near-perfect album by a band that seems, finally, to have found their identity. At least for the moment.

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