“All popular artists get caught between making records and making music,” Bruce Springsteen once observed. “If you’re lucky, sometimes it’s the same thing. When you learn to craft your music into recordings, there’s always something gained and lost.”
The Boss was referring to Nebraska, the iconic one-man folk album he put out 40 years ago this month. When he made it, Bruce thought he was recording demos for what later became his world-beating commercial blockbuster Born In The U.S.A., released two years later. But the spooky vibe of the home recordings couldn’t be replicated in the studio, so he eventually decided to release Nebraska as is. In this instance, he thought he was making music when he was actually making a record.
I thought about Bruce’s words recently as I immersed myself in the forthcoming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot box set, which drops next week. When Wilco announced the anniversary collection in April, some scoffed at the excessive largesse — 11 LPs in vinyl form or eight discs for the CD set. All of this for one album that didn’t even go platinum? On paper, this box set seemed like it might single-handedly upend the supply chain.
For people like me, however, all of the extras were justified. I’ve often said that my favorite Wilco record is a bootleg of outtakes from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. As great as the record is, the long and restless journey in search of that greatness has always been more fascinating to me, for the same reason that rock geeks have long obsessed over the making of similarly “difficult” paradigm-shifting curveballs like Pet Sounds, Tusk, and Kid A. For many months during 2000 and ’01 at The Loft, Wilco’s north side Chicago rehearsal space and studio, they ran through countless different versions of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot songs. In the process, they touched on nearly every corner of modern music history, dabbling in classic Brill Building pop, spacey psychedelia, blistering krautrock, rustic folk, surly garage punk, bubblegum funk, John Cage-inspired dissonance, and various points in-between. (There are also the fan favorites that didn’t make the album, like “Venus Stop The Train” and “Cars Can’t Escape.”)
As a record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a brilliantly focused mood piece. But the outtakes explode in dozens of different directions, and evince seemingly limitless possibilities. Is it possible to have too many versions of “Kamera”? Maybe, but I haven’t had my fill quite yet. And here, finally, is the mother lode.
Now that I have spent considerable time with the box set, I can confirm that this is exactly the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot I have always wanted. We’ve known for 20 years that Wilco made an amazing record. But the box set shows that they also made a lot of amazing music — some of which I value even more than the record. It’s the difference between looking at one corner of the sky and taking in an entire universe.
As one of the most acclaimed albums of the 21st century, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot also has the most repeated backstory of any rock record from the last two decades. The box set both reiterates the lore and adds to it via excellent liner notes written by rock journalist Bob Mehr, who dutifully recounts the various dramas that unfolded during the album’s protracted gestation and release — the firing of founding drummer Ken Coomer and hiring of Glenn Kotche, the friction (and drug-fueled camaraderie) between creative partners Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, the recalcitrant record label that balked at putting out an allegedly uncommercial LP, and the unexpected resonance of the songs and album cover in the wake of 9/11.
At times, the record feels like a time capsule of the early aughts, particularly the disc that includes an entire broadcast of the radio talk show Sound Opinions from Sept. 18, 2001, the day the album was posted online seven months ahead of its commercial release. (There are also two discs devoted to a dynamite concert performed in St. Louis in 2002.) Between in-studio performances of future classics such as “War On War” and “Ashes Of American Flags,” a shell-shocked Tweedy struggles to explain the prescience of lyrics like “you have to learn how to die / if you want to want to be alive” just one week after September 11th.
How the box set augments the mythos is by re-framing the narrative about how the record came to be. In that way it feels like a delayed response to Sam Jones’ 2002 documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, which centers on Tweedy and Bennett’s disintegrating relationship and the “David vs. Goliath” conflict between Wilco and their record label, Reprise. While the latter point was central to how Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was discussed and celebrated in the moment, it now registers as a relatively minor footnote, given that Wilco swiftly signed with another label — a subsidiary of the same corporation, Warner Bros., no less! — and carried on successfully for decades afterward.
As for the former point, the scene everyone remembers from I Am Trying To Break Your Heart occurs when Bennett is trying to explain to an increasingly agitated Tweedy his reasoning for an edit at the start of “Heavy Metal Drummer.” “I just want you to understand me,” Bennett pleads, in a way that suggests he’s talking about more than just an arcane sonic detail. “Why is that so important?” an exasperated Tweedy retorts. “I don’t have to understand you all the time.” He then flees the studio and vomits in the bathroom, the most famous puke scene in rock-doc history.
In a lengthy Q&A included with the liners, Tweedy drolly notes that he invited Jones to film what happened after that scene, when he invited his friend and collaborator Jim O’Rourke to mix and essentially “save” the album. Over the years, Tweedy has made it clear that this part of making Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — which didn’t make the film — was in his view critical to the final product. With guidance from Tweedy and Kotche, O’Rourke stripped out a lot of the music and, in some cases, added different instrumental parts and even re-worked arrangements. Over time, the chaotic bombast of the Loft recordings were whittled down to a chilly and austere gem. Or, as Tweedy puts it, “It kind of became a Wilco record pared down to its essence and then Loose Fur made a record on top of it.”
There’s no question that O’Rourke was critical in turning Yankee Hotel Foxtrot into a record. But my main (perhaps unintentional?) takeaway from the box set is that Bennett was responsible for a lot of what I love about the music of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
I’m going to tread carefully here, as I am not one of those Wilco fans who gave up on the band after Bennett was dismissed. And I don’t buy into the effort — forwarded earlier this year by the flawed documentary Where Are You, Jay Bennett? — to villainize Tweedy for the ouster. All involved parties (including Bennett, based on interviews he gave before his tragic death in 2009) have insisted that the duo reached an impasse by the end of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that made continuing together impossible. This perception is supported by Mehr’s liners, which provide the most complete and even-handed account of the album’s creation yet. (There’s also the matter of Wilco’s continued growth and consistency after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, demonstrated once again earlier this year with the very good Cruel Country, their best LP in at least a decade.)
But what’s also undisputed is that Bennett was a musical mad scientist who could realize any brainstorm he or Tweedy dreamt up. As Tweedy concedes, “I could say ‘I want to hear it like this,’ and he had the expertise and understanding of how to do that.” Along with co-writing the bulk of the album with Tweedy, including much of the music, Bennett was pivotal for what former Wilco multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach describes as “an investigation of the songs,” in which the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot material was run through many different styles and permutations in search of a unique and indelible musical alchemy.
For Tweedy, this proved to be a frustrating process. “I wanted to make something I hadn’t heard before,” he explains, and too much of what Wilco was doing sounded like “a really good rock band.” On that count, I must agree, though I don’t consider it an insult. Wilco was in fact a fantastic rock band at the time, and listening to them push, pull, stretch, and even exhaust themselves in order to create a masterpiece is frequently an exhilarating experience.
On the CD version, four out of the eight discs are composed of outtakes, amounting to about 60 tracks. Again, that’s probably overkill for a casual listener. But for fans, it’s a treasure trove. Some of the takes are absolutely bonkers — “Ashes Of American Flags” laced with an Igor Stravinsky sample, a rapid-fire countrified “War On War” with souped-up banjo picking, a caterwauling “Radio Cure” that sounds like a Brian Wilson nervous breakdown from the Smile era.
Other tracks head in the opposite direction from that sort of maximalism. An early performance of “Jesus, Etc.” slinks like a vintage Al Green ballad. A stunning solo take on “Radio Cure” hits like Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” via Big Star’s Third. An especially funky “I’m The Man Who Loves You” veers into steamy swamp rock. “Hummingbird” (later released on A Ghost Is Born) is remade as a drone-psych jam. But even when a radical arrangement or over-the-top overdub doesn’t land, it’s always worth hearing, if only because the pervading spirit of “we’ll try anything!” is so infectious and inspiring.
Taking all of this in, I think it’s possible (and even necessary) to hold two thoughts in your head: 1) The stuff that didn’t make Yankee Hotel Foxtrot did not fit on the record; 2) The stuff that didn’t make Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is some of the greatest music Wilco has ever made.
It’s helpful to consider Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the record and the music on this box set as connected but separate entities. One is a clear and concise statement of purpose. The other is sprawling and excessive. Both are fantastic, but I know which one I’ll be listening to more in the years ahead. In the liners, Tweedy says, “I needed to find some experimental music with a bigger heart. That’s what I was looking for my whole life.” Me too. With the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot box set, I’ve found it.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.