Friday, December 21, 2007

Wilco - "Sky Blue Sky" (Nonesuch 2007)

I talked some in my review of The Drams Jubilee Dive of following certain artists through stylistic changes successfully because they retain that certain essential something that makes them them. Jeff Tweedy is an artist that has managed this masterfully. There are no two Wilco records that sound the same, but you can recognize a Wilco record when you hear it whether or not you've heard it before. This isn't easy to accomplish, and it's no less impressive considering the wide ranging experimentation Wilco has indulged in over their past three records.

Sky Blue Sky has been touted as Wilco's "return to form". I'm not sure what "form" it is being discussed here, as Wilco has never exhibited a consistency that I would say pidgeon-holed them. A.M.? Being There? While these two early records definitely harken back to the country rock/ of Tweedy's former project Uncle Tupelo, they are still departures from that band's sound, and each is a departure from the sound of the other. I'll agree that A.M. and Being There are closer stylistically that any other two Wilco records, but Being There represents a definite step in a new direction that presages the revolutionary changes to come. With Wilco there's no "form" to return to. There's only forward motion, for better or worse.

Sky Blue Sky does nothing to buck this trend. The audial experimentation of Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born is hardly present at all in Wilco's latest offering. In much the way Summerteeth owed quite a bit of its sound and spirit to Brian Wilson's more experimental production work, Sky Blue Sky owes a considerable debt to mellow 70's songsters like Paul McCartney and, yes, even James Taylor. This is most evident in the Wings-esque "Shake It Off" and the more McCartney on his own inspired "Walken". The James Taylor reference comes more of the overall feel of the record rather than any specific sonic similarities. There are other comparisons to be made, but let's just leave it at the fact that this record sounds a lot like a mellow, mid-70's album.

That, of course, is not the end of the story. Tweedy's predilection for experimentation pops up in places, most notably in the outro to "Side With the Seeds", a turn almost ruined by the self-indulgent guitar solo that crashes into it. A similar sort of guitar histrionics shows up in "You Are My Face". This kind of instrumentation works to great effect in a song like "At Least That's What You Said" from A Ghost is Born, in which the guitar takes over from the vocals in expressing the violence of an argument between two people in the second half of the piece. Given the overall lower key feeling of Sky Blue Sky it just sounds out of place.

Looking back over this it reads like a negative review (especially if you hold mainstream 70's music in the same contempt that I do) which is hardly the case. Remember that McCartney's a master at crafting a pop song and making sure it's produced in such a way that serves the song well. The same can be said of James Taylor. You don't have to like their music, but in the construction they knew what the hell they were doing. In spades. This record may sound like it was produced in the 70's for a soft rock audience, but the production suits this set of songs very well, and there's not a bad one among them. Tweedy is a remarkably powerful songwriter, and he continues to prove it on this record. Sky Blue Sky has been described by some as "boring". While there is a noticable absence of existential and emotional angst that has characterized much of his previous work, it's not "boring". Rather it seems the ruminations of a man who's finally laid many of his demons to rest, and these stories are certainly good for some pop gems. Towards the end of the record "What Light" and "On and On and On" jump out and grab you with both hands.

The final track of the record is "Let's Not Get Carried Away", a blast of Tattoo You era Rolling Stones inspired rock 'n' roll. While Tattoo You may have come out in 1981, I still consider it the coda of 1970's mainstream rock. What perfect inspiration to end Sky Blue Sky.

Rating: 3 out of 4

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