Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sky Blue Sky (Music Commentary)

"Lyrics come to a melody like dust settles on furniture." ~Jeff Tweedy (paraphrased from a May 2007 interview)

If my fascination for Wilco is at all a secret, it's poorly kept.

And if you, too, are a fan of this Midwestern band, then you know why I'm bringing them up again: their newest album, Sky Blue Sky was released just over a week ago. And while there's no denying this album is their most mellow to date, I think it's a welcome addition to their repertoire.

But I'm a tad uneasy whenever I read (or hear) a review that implies the band has lost its edge, an accusation reviewers love to connect to front man Jeff Tweedy's successful completion of substance abuse rehabilitation (Tweedy has long suffered from debilitating migraines, which resulted in a subsequent addiction to painkillers).

Not only has Tweedy "kicked the habit," but he's also found a routine that allows him to minimize the frequency of said migraines. He's kicked a few other habits as well (e.g. smoking) and isn't ashamed to admit that he's happier and healthier than he's been in years.

The resultant question for many reviewers/interviewers has thus been not so much a question, but an insinuation.

"Now we all know you're healthier than you've been in over a decade, Jeff. Does that help to explain the more subdued tone of this album?"

Let me interrupt here to say that although Sky Blue Sky is a far cry from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) — an album I will continue to refer to as one of the most innovative and possibly one of the best produced in an era — it's unfair to expect any band to produce something of that caliber with every release.

Within a couple listens of YHF, in fact, I knew I was listening to something Wilco — or any band, for that matter — would be hard pressed to top. It's melodic and yet utilizes just pure... sound... in many of its tracks. That they were able to do this without the "sound" becoming "noise" was a mystery to me. But it worked, and rather beautifully at that.

The album which followed that masterpiece, A Ghost is Born, was also a treat. But it was no Yankee. There were a couple songs on Ghost that I couldn't get enough of (e.g. "Hummingbird") and others that just sorta blended in with the rest.

It follows that Sky Blue Sky is a little like that for me — though the album as a whole is (yes, music critics, you got something right) generally more mellow than previous Wilco productions.

That is to say, there's less "sound" behind the instrumentation (forgive me, I'm not entirely familiar with industry jargon), something I do kind of miss. But that also means Sky has a certain air (forgive the pun) about it that makes it easier to listen to.

I'm not saying this is "easy listening" — far from it — but rather that Sky is just a tad easier to digest than Wilco fans are accustomed to (and so may be particularly difficult for this same fan base to sink in those proverbial).

What irritates me about the recent deluge of reviews and interviews — to get back to my original point — is the insinuation that Tweedy's recent bout of happiness is complicit in some sort of artistic decay.

Sure, this album is more about finding happiness in the day-to-day and yes, it does have a more "hopeful" quality, as evidenced here by the title track:

Oh, if I didn’t die
I should be satisfied
I survived
That's good enough for now

But I also think it's a little short-sighted to term it an altogether optimistic work. There's a lot on here about being happy with what you have, but this is also spoken in the context of an ongoing battle with loneliness and uncertainty.

Song after song, Tweedy's optimism is pitted up against an intangible frustration with the world.

Why is there no breeze
No currency of leaves
No current through the water wire
No feelings I can see
("You Are My Face")

But what Tweedy seems to determine is a bit akin to Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" (without all of the sexual innuendo). In other words: the world is brutal, and we can't change a thing. And then where Arnold's narrator turns to his female companion and essentially proposes a rendezvous, Tweedy turns to his family (and himself) as a means to secure some degree of happiness.

And I do mean degree. Or why else is the simple satisfaction of being alive simply good enough for now?

But, again, back to point: I'm not so sure the tone of this album -- which isn't quite as simple as reviewers have implied -- is a direct result of Tweedy's recovery. I'm not even so sure it's a direct result of the band's cohesiveness (this album is perhaps Wilco's most collaborative to date).

Rather, I think this album's tone -- like Tweedy's recovery from addiction -- has something to do with the simple passage of time: Tweedy is a married father-of-two. And it sounds like, maybe, he's growing up.

And I don't care what anyone says.

That's not necessarily a bad thing.


Woodrow said...

Never heard them or even of them but will check it all out soon.

disgruntled world citizen said...

i had a hummdinger of a migraine yesterday. my total goal for the day was this: find a bottle of coke and drink it. i'm not usually a coke drinker, but man, that is the magic elixir when i have a migraine.

i'll have to check the band out, i've heard of them, but im not familiar with their music.

Anonymous said...

To me, it is like they are implying you can't be happy and a musician all at the same time or something is wrong with you.

I may have to check out this album. It sounds like he has come to the conclusion that you are better off finding the little happies in life rather than shoot for the big ones that might be a bust. I can relate to that.

Michael K said...

Foxtrot was awesome but I really connected with Summerteeth and for Parties I always break out Being There.

The last album was kind of a disappointment and I haven't given the latest a real good listen yet.

One last thing, for some reason, I can only post on your blog if someone else has already posted. Kind of weird.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

Woodrow - Let me know what you think. If you're using iTunes, I'd recommend songs like "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," "Hummingbird," "Jesus, Etc." or "Reservations."

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

DWC - Sounds like you could relate to Tweedy's problem... you might want to search online to see if he's mentioned what routine he's using to minimize the frequency/severity.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

BPP - That's exactly what they're implying. And while I certainly understand the whole suffering artist theory, I also find it highly discouraging and like to pretend to believe it isn't always true.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

Michael - Both excellent albums, though Yankee is still the gem for me. Sounds like we reacted to Ghost in a similar way, though it grew on me the more I listened to it. Particularly, as I mentioned here, songs like "Hummingbird."

Let me know what you think about Sky when/if you give it a listen. I have a feeling this one might alter their fan base a bit.

Anonymous said...

It could be worse. If becoming Happy makes it hard to do what Wilco does best, imagine poor AC-DC. I listened to part of their latest album. It is hard to do testosterone fueled heavy metal when you have been given your AARP card, I think. (Of course, in my opinion, they really haven't been the same since Bon Scott died.)

I think that reviewer are a case of "We can't do it, so we'll bash it."

Stacy said...

I have a favorite local band too, they even let me dance on stage. They cut a new cd and then they began to tour, now they are falling apart.
I can't read the entire post because we did the roller coaster from hades yesterday, seven times and a few others to boot. My brain is bruised i think.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

Stacy - Though Wilco is in the Midwest now, I believe some of the band members originated a bit south of here. Tweedy's previous band, Uncle Tupelo, is often credited as really kicking off the rockabilly movement, for example.

They have a pretty loyal fanbase nationwide and they've put out several albums... and yet, most people in this world have never heard of them. They sell out show after show in some cities. In others, they're virtually unknown.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

(which I'll never understand)

Stacy said...

(Ive been taking a vacation from my computer world and just now getting back)
Big Head Todd and the Monsters are like that too, huge following play internationally and still so many people, who I would assume were hip, have never heard of them.
I have heard of Wilco, but I must admit to not knowing their music. I will check them out.