Last week, Wilco released its 10th album, Schmilco. As per usual for a Wilco LP, Schmilco has gotten pretty good reviews. The same adjectives keep recurring to describe the album: quiet, simple, loose, emotional, personal. To be fair, those adjectives have appeared in many of Wilco’s previous album reviews. So, what makes Schmilco different?
This is a tricky question for a band like Wilco, which has made records that people love (Being There, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), records that people don’t love (Sky Blue Sky), and records that were largely greeted with indifference (Wilco (The Album)). Wilco has reached that strange point in its career when critics and fans will reflexively praise its latest work out of respect, and then quickly cast it aside, as if it never really existed. This means that a record like Schmilco — the title is a reference to Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson — has a high likelihood of being lost in the shuffle.
So, again: What makes Schmilco different from all the other Wilco records? To get to the bottom of this, let’s walk through the five stages of Wilco’s career, and then back to Schmilco.
Stage 1: Pre-Wilco (1989-94)
In the beginning, Uncle Tupelo was Jay Farrar’s band. Farrar projected authority, because he was the one with the perfect voice for alt-country. Jeff Tweedy’s voice was thinner and more malleable, which served him well later on when alt-country became a disreputable term. But in Uncle Tupleo, Farrar could get away with singing about coal miners eating bulldog gravy and cornbread because he sounded like an omniscient Old Testament God whenever he opened his mouth. He could have been Tweedy’s dad, even though Farrar was only eight months older than Tweedy.
In light of Wilco’s ascendancy, Uncle Tupelo’s story was reframed — in retrospect, it’s impossible not to dwell on the rivalry between Farrar and Tweedy, and how Tweedy took power away from Farrar as the band got more popular and slowly disintegrated. For years, both men shared an apartment in their hometown of Belleville, Ill. Farrar was taciturn and uncommunicative, while Tweedy was emotional and desperate for human connection. In Greg Kot’s 2004 Wilco biography, Learning How To Die, there’s a funny-sad anecdote about the night that Tweedy confronted Farrar in their apartment about Farrar’s decision to break up the band in late 1993, on the eve of what became Uncle Tupelo’s farewell tour.
“Tell me to my face … Why do you hate me?”
Farrar squared up with the person he’d been playing in bands with for 12 years. “You don’t know what it’s like to stand onstage with somebody every night who loves themselves as much as you do.”
Tweedy was taken aback. “You’re right, I don’t have any idea.”
There’s a lot going on here, but what comes through is Farrar’s discomfort with how Uncle Tupelo’s power dynamics were no longer working in his favor. Tweedy’s progress in the band was incremental — after the Farrar-dominated 1990 debut No Depression, Tweedy wrote his best song up to that point, “Gun,” which led off Uncle Tupelo’s next record, 1991’s Still Feel Gone. Then, Tweedy topped himself again with “Black Eye,” a standout from 1992’s March 16-20, 1992. By Uncle Tupelo’s final album, 1993’s Anodyne, recorded with a revamped lineup that included future Wilco members John Stirratt, Ken Coomer, and Max Johnston, Tweedy and Farrar were essentially equals. When Uncle Tupelo made its national television debut on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1994, Tweedy was the one at center stage, not Farrar.