Sky Blue Sky

by Greg Locke

Wilco have been so long discussed and written about that, truthfully, there's probably nothing left to say that hasn't already been picked raw. Yes, they are shape-shifters; they always have been. Sure, helmsmen Jeff Tweedy has had his share of personal and professional problems, but this everyman grief has also often been the fuel for some of the finest songs of our time. And their new album, Sky Blue Sky, is a boring, uninspired, simple adult contemporary record that's ready made for Barnes and Noble display fixtures. Or, wait, maybe it isn't. Maybe, just maybe, it's a grower. And maybe classifying something as "adult," isn't a bad thing. That is, if what you're really meaning to say is "mature." Or "seasoned." Or "sophisticated." Wilco arrive on Sky Blue Sky as all of these things. Especially sophisticated ... and maybe a bit Zen, too (dig the Jonathan Livingston Seagull-inspired cover art).

The rumors are true. At first blush Sky Blue Sky seems a bit too straightforward, boring and clear-cut; but live with it for a week and you'll soon find that it's actually none of those things to the core. No, it probably didn't max out studio soundboards or take months to mix. And yes, most of the songs were recorded live in the studio with little or no overdubs or Pro Tools tweaking. Do you have a problem with that? If so, you might want to go back and listen to A.M. and Being There. Now those were simple, albeit great, records. But they weren't mature or seasoned or sophisticated. Then again, they didn't follow creative juggernauts like Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, so, really, who was counting?

While touring in support of the band's Grammy-winning fifth official studio album, A Ghost is Born, Wilco became something different than they'd ever been before: wholly collaborative. They'd recently added legendary avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline to their lineup, and, as the show tally grew and grew, Tweedy became more and more comfortable with Cline's new interpretations of the band's catalog. This new dynamic, one would have to assume, cracked the Tweedy shell, consequently opening the doors for a more collaboration dynamic. A year or so later the band drummer Glenn Kotche, pianist Mikael Jorgensen, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, longtime bassist John Stirratt, Tweedy and Cline hit their stride while on the road. The shows sounded bigger and more powerful than ever before, and, judging by the release of their first live album, Kicking Television, they knew they'd become something else. Something most bands never become. They'd become pros. Masters.

Around this time new songs with names like "Walken," "What Light" and "Impossible Germany" all of which are included on Sky Blue Sky's track list started popping up. Songs that sounded so classic that most fans initially figured them for covers. Songs that sounded like they were meant to be. Songs that only one in a million bands are capable of coming up with, if that. Soulful pop songs that build on what the band had accomplished recently with tracks like "Hummingbird" and "Theologians."

After U2-like delays Sky Blue Sky was finally out there, streaming on the band's website for free. Reviews started trickling in, most of which used all the same language; boring, uninspired, slow, insipid, mellow, moody and unimaginative, to name just a few, were words every reviewer seemed intent to throw around. This seemed odd, considering songs like "What Light" and "Walken" had already received gobs of gushing acclaim. Could it be true? Had Wilco finally lost their edge? Were the Steve Vai rumors true? Had Wilco really put out their version of a bad-era Mark Knopfler record?

After a few listens it seemed possible. Tweedy's lyrics had gone from playfully cryptic and dark to straightforward and (gasp) hopeful. The song structures seemed derivative of bands like The Eagles and whatever breezy SoCal bands come to mind, as opposed to Neu! or Radiohead or Sonic Youth or even Harry Nilsson. It seemed that Wilco had put on their slippers, sat on their couches and tapped out of the creative world they'd sat at the top of for nearly a decade.

Then it sets in: the guitar riffs and bouncy piano on "You Are My Face"; the imagery-drenched poetic verses of "Sky Blue Sky"; the improbable mini-movements spliced within "Shake It Off"; the Nilsson-meets-Newman pop intellect of "Hate It Here"; and, of course, the instant classics "Either Way," "Impossible Germany," "Walken" and "What Light." It's all there:the expert musicianship, the long-labored lyrics, the textures, the vocals, the heart, the soul and the swagger. Wilco have done what they always do: they've put out one of the best albums of the year. Maybe even the best.

It's a timeless record, full of sweet, hopeful sophistication and class. It's exactly what Wilco should be; anything else would come off as either played out or irresponsible, considering their talent and amazing live shows. Sure, they could release a progressive spirited album full of layers and layers of sound, but why do that when all your players play so clean and efficiently? What would be the point? When asked why he stopped layering his albums with guitar track after guitar track, Built to Spill's Doug Martsch claimed that he was finally comfortable enough with his skill that he didn't need to over-bake his work anymore. Like Wilco, Martsch recorded Built to Spill's recent album, You In Reverse, live in the studio, without relying on overdubs or extensive production. And that's it; Wilco no longer need a hazy crutch. Tweedy has finally found players good enough to keep up with his vision, and the result is a lean, mean, soulful album named Sky Blue Sky, an album that will, possibly unlike some of their other work, still sound fresh in 20 years. The result is one of the best albums of 2007, that is, if you give it the time and thought it demands.

Copyright 2007 Ad Media Inc.