The New Wilco Album Is Their Best In More Than A Decade

Wilco has never been a democracy. As one of their former band members once put it, allegedly quoting Jeff Tweedy, a circle can only have one center. But for nearly 20 years, they have settled into a benevolent dictatorship in which each person has an important role — there’s the loyal lieutenant (John Stirratt), the multi-talented fixers (Pat Sansone and Mikeal Jorgensen), and the instrumental assassins (Glenn Kotche and Nels Cline). On stage, this collection of highly skilled musicians have given Wilco an extended period of stability that has come to greatly outnumber their highly turbulent (though artistically fruitful) early years.

On recent albums, however, Wilco hasn’t sounded much like a band. Instead, one of the most respected figureheads in American indie has felt like another side project for Tweedy to indulge his increasingly prolific songwriting habit. For all of their considerable merits, records like 2015’s Star Wars, 2016’s Schmilco, and 2019’s Ode To Joy are spare, brittle listens, in which the instrumentation is often pared back to the point of ambient minimalism. Those scaled-down sonics served the themes of Tweedy’s songs during this period, which more than ever were consumed by matters of mortality and the struggles of maintaining a personal sense of decency (or even sanity) in a terrifying, destabilized world. But the pleasures of seeing Wilco live — particularly this bountiful lineup, which continues to evolve and blossom with each and every tour — have been frustratingly absent from the band’s recorded work.

Enter Cruel Country, Wilco’s great new LP due out Friday. The product of the band finally assembling in the same room earlier this year for the first time since the start of the pandemic, this 21-song double-album was mostly recorded live and with minimal overdubs, a method that Wilco has not pursued since 2007’s similarly naturalistic Sky Blue Sky. Also like that record, a slightly jammy sensibility permeates Cruel Country; as Tweedy himself put it, songs were put down with “no ‘one’ person in charge,” which required faith in “a belief that we’re all heading toward the same destination, and we either get there together or not at all.”

This empathetic and collaborative musical approach is also suitable for Tweedy’s present concerns, with many songs centering on the “cruel country” that many of us call home. While Wilco’s entire career could be described as a project obsessed with interpreting (and in some cases subverting) the traditions of American music and making them relevant to our nation as it currently stands, Tweedy writes more directly about America on Cruel Country than he ever has. The record opens with Tweedy creating an ambivalent image of immigration in the Dylanesque waltz “I Am My Mother” — “Dangerous dreams have been detected / Streaming over the southern border” — that speaks to the dream/nightmare duality of America’s fitfully fulfilled promises. While there’s no question where the vocally liberal Tweedy stands, he’s able to hold two seemingly competing views of his homeland in his head at the same time, as he relates on the album’s thoughtful title track, singing, “I love my country, stupid and cruel / red, white, and blue”

But while Tweedy acknowledges the strife and division that defines public discourse — “There is no middle when the other side / would rather kill than compromise,” he observes in “Hints” — the music on Cruel Country pulls in the opposite direction, offering a hopeful counterpoint. If this really is an America in which those who come here in order to seek a better life are viewed by many citizens as “dangerous dreams,” this is also an America in which community among likeminded people in a rock band can be forged from the shared belief that “we either get there together or not at all.” Cruel Country is so expansive that it transcends the good vs. evil binary thinking that dominates both sides of the political spectrum, allowing instead for the reality of what this country actually is — a place where our best and worst selves are engaged in a constant, centuries-long conversation that tilts alternately between self-destruction and salvation.

For the long-time Wilco fan, that lyric from Cruel Country‘s title track might also evoke their first double-album statement, 1996’s Being There, in which our nation’s colors are defaced as the druggy “Red-Eyed And Blue.” That pivotal record marked Tweedy’s initial break from the genre that his previous band, Uncle Tupelo, was dubiously credited with spearheading: alt-country. In truth, Uncle Tupelo was always more influenced by Minutemen than Merle Haggard, regardless of their proclivity for occasionally reviving ancient songs on acoustic guitars. By the time of Being There, Tweedy was overt about making punk, folk, art rock, and ’60s and ’70s AM pop his primary touchstones, while also downplaying the down-home affectations of Wilco’s 1995 debut, A.M.

But now that we’re 20 years removed from Wilco’s ultimate “not alt-country” mike drop, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Tweedy is more comfortable than ever with adopting country signifiers. Enter Nels Cline, iconic indie-noise guitarist and (who knew?) accomplished country picker, whose plays like Don Rich with a Glenn Branca edge on “Falling Apart (Right Now).” And Tweedy follows suit, adopting a slyly funny lyrical voice on the record’s twangiest numbers. “Once I cut off my arm / I sewed it back on all wrong / Now I don’t have to bend / To reach the bottom shelf / When I need a story to tell,” he croons in “Story To Tell,” reviving the loopy John Prine-style humor of early Wilco classics like “Passenger Side” that he largely abandoned on subsequent records. The wry “Lifetime To Find” has a similar M.O., with Tweedy taking a brief tangent from ruminating on death to tell himself, “O’ Jeff / Don’t obsess.”

The most overwhelming moments on Cruel Country are when Wilco find a happy medium between country music and their more experimental side. The album’s best track, “Bird Without A Tail – Base Of My Skull,” is a stunningly pretty mid-tempo strummer that shifts into a gentle space-rock jam, like the Grateful Dead slipping in a brief “Dark Star” into the middle of “Ripple.” Another highlight, “Many Worlds,” builds from a dreamy psych-rock piano ballad in the mold of Buffalo Springfield’s “Expecting To Fly” to an extended interlude of Cline’s delicate cosmic soloing, ultimately landing on a honky tonk variation on his live workouts during the climax of “Impossible Germany.”

The heart-busting music on Cruel Country is a welcome respite from the bleakness that will inevitably accompany any truthful meditation on the United States. For all of his even-handedness about presenting the mercy and malice that defines life in contemporary America, Tweedy can’t help but concede that things seem to be trending downward. Though even here there’s humor, like the part in the amiable shuffle “Tonight’s The Day” when he relates a conversation between two dinner mates imbued with contemporary paranoia: “Patty whispered across the table / ‘I think we’re being watched. / You said we were invisible. / Tell the waiter, the sun’s in my soup. / And sooner or later my face will be too.”

The album ends with its spookiest track, “The Plains,” in which an anonymous Middle American embraces the bland and comforting fascism that for years has inexorably infiltrated the hearts and minds of the citizenry. “I like it here on the plains,” Tweedy sings over a ghostly acoustic guitar, sans band, as ominous disembodied noises loom on the horizon. “From what I see on my TV / There isn’t any point in being free / When there’s nowhere else / You’d rather be.”

I played Cruel Country a lot this week when I needed a break from news stories about school shootings, overseas wars, and eroding civil liberties. In the ’90s, musicians like Tweedy dug into the roots of America’s musical past to find a narrative that was more open-minded and sympathetic than the depressing stories we all heard in history class or on the evening news, which were always centered on political dynasties and endless military conquests. At its best, this music reminded people born into modernity that there was a rich heritage buried underneath the toxicity of institutional American history that we all could inherit as part of our birthright. We just needed to know where to look and how listen for it.

A record like Cruel Country can, I hope, remind a new generation that there’s a version of America rooted in art, love, community, and joy. It is, at heart, a batch of folk songs replete with lovely pedal steel guitars and warm organ fills. But the album also carries a harder, more pessimistic truth. It’s the one you hear in “The Plains,” in which the place that vows to give all who live here the world might in fact, in the end, take our souls.

Wilco is streaming their performances this weekend from their Solid Sound Festival. Purchase passes here.