Wilco have found a groove. Last year’s Star Wars was an achievement for the band, a bizarre combination of their trademark “alternative country” sound and electric avant grade sounds that made for a really engaging, albeit short, listen. Schmilco feels like a counterpart of Star Wars and continues their creative success, but moves into almost completely acoustic territory.
The band returns its array of talented musicians, Jeff Tweedy (Vocals, Guitar), Nels Cline (guitar), Glenn Kotche (Drums), and John Stirratt (Bass). While the sound of the album is more subdued than some of their past work, the musicality remains top notch, with some bizarre freakouts making appearances in the meat of the record. But overall, the band sets the mood of the record perfectly – while many would argue that it’s a bad thing that their sound hasn’t changed throughout their long career, I would say the lyrical mastery by Tweedy and the musical genius of the rest of the band work a lot harder than it seems to set different moods totally unlike anything else in modern music. Plus, the fact that this iteration of the band has been together for so long at this point means a tangible cohesion in the music, resulting in some pretty great country rock grooves.
The most underrated quality in Wilco is Jeff Tweedy’s lyric writing, musings on the world and on our culture that are incredibly thoughtful and often tongue-in-cheek. Right away in the opener, Tweedy laments his own ungenuine attempts to fit in with the other “normal American kids”. As opposed to Freddie Mercury wanting to find someone to love, Tweedy wishes that everyone finds “someone to lose” someday, inevitable due to the common paranoia in relationships. “We aren’t the world, we aren’t the children” Tweedy proclaims, undoubtedly criticizing the sentiments of USA For Africa and their disconnect with the true evils in the world.
The music also matches these anxieties – as the emotions get too much by the fourth and fifth tracks, “Common Sense” and “Nope”, the music turns from acoustic and contemplative into dissonant and mysterious. It’s almost as if the monotony of life eventually gets to the protagonist of the record, resulting in a mental and musical breakdown, wobbly basslines and meandering electric guitar abound, before rationalizing their feelings with deceptively bright songs and underhanded statements like “I hope you find someone to lose” and “Happiness depends on who you blame”. The theme finally ends with pessimism, as the singer proclaims the hopelessness in trying to understand the world. Paranoia, collective guilt, false charity – the music is dark and world-weary, but Wilco has always been a dependable voice of reason in folk rock.
The amusing and “shocking” cartoon panels on the cover of Schmilco don’t exactly match the sound of the record, but its the irony of it all that is absolutely reflected in Tweedy’s songwriting. With song titles like “Nope”, “Shrug and Destroy”, and “We Aren’t The Children”, it’s good to see Wilco don’t take themselves too seriously on the surface, but seriously enough to make damning commentary on the world with their compelling music. After two decades together, Wilco have established themselves as one of the most genuine and consistent rock bands currently working.
Alt-Country | Anti Records