Wilco’s new album seeks peace in a cruel country

The nation has selected a new musical champion, and he sings with an accent. This week, american idol crowned Noah Thompson, a goatee-bearded 20-year-old construction worker from Kentucky, as the winner of the twentieth season. On his debut single, “One Day Tonight,” Thompson imagines giving a bride everything she yearns for: a diamond ring, a home repair in Denver, a honeymoon in Las Vegas. He is singing about love, but also about America, where dreams and destinations shine like baubles in a store.

Familiar tunes, familiar wishes, familiar ground: this is the stuff of country music, that raucously American art form. Even the renegades of the genre, those who criticize Nashville’s conformist streak or agitate against gun culture, accomplish a Thompson-like feat by deftly redrawing a map of places and feelings that the listener intrinsically knows. . (On Miranda Lambert’s naughty new album, for example, one song reworks Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” under the name “Geraldene”.) This week brings a weird and wonderful entry into that tradition with cruel countryWilco’s twelfth album.

Wilco are art-rock legends, but in the ’90s, the band’s violin-heavy jams about gambling and drinking were labeled “alt-country.” After pushing all sorts of exploratory directions over the following decades, the band reset their sound in response to the COVID-19 crisis. In cruel countryIn the press releases, singer Jeff Tweedy explains that “seeking new ways” in such a disorienting time felt wrong. “So Country and Folk songs started to happen,” he writes. Lots of them. loads you’re right: 21 tracks long, cruel country joins a trend of artists uncorking pandemic backlogs with double or interlinked albums.

This musical richness is stunningly beautiful: the work of a master band making the most beautiful noises imaginable. The main attraction is the guitars, including popular varieties such as Dobro, lap steel, and baritone, intertwining with the random, rhythmic grace of whispering branches. Tweedy’s raspy sighs and questioning choruses are generally a bit more direct and accessible than usual for him (“Talk to me/I don’t want to hear poetry,” he chides in “The Universe”). Though shuffle beats and Roy Orbison-esque howls crop up, several tracks, like the nearly eight-minute-long new-age cry of “Many Worlds,” feel better suited for candlelight meditation than dancing. in the barn.

Still, the album is country in that it makes you think of a very specific country. “Dangerous dreams have been detected / Flowing over the southern border,” Tweedy sings in the album’s first line, conjuring debates about immigration in the US. Shortly after, the title track celebrates “my country, stupid and cruel / Red / White / And blue”. Yes, a liberal singer who supports reparations is airing political concerns once again. Tweedy’s press releases say that he felt he needed to write about the “problematic nature” of both country music and America. But he is making collages, not manifests. The listener has to guess why these songs, in one way or another, address a feeling of hopelessness.

Which means that, as is often the case with Wilco and with country music, society and soul merge throughout the album. The impressive “Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull” rambles like the Allman Brothers Band as Tweedy strings together metaphors that chart a path from despair to contentment to death. Is the song a parable about civilization or about the changing experience of life? Similarly, when Tweedy ponders “Suggestions” that “There’s no middle ground when the other side/Would rather kill than commit,” his lines can’t help but pull double duty. A civil war brews in the singer and around him.

Perhaps indie rock doesn’t need another 21st-century groan of disaffection. Thankfully, cruel country it’s the most effective entry in Wilco’s long and sustained attempt to move away from the desolation that defined him two decades ago (a move in line with Tweedy’s personal history of dealing with addiction, depression and debilitating migraines). Over and over again, the songs create the feeling of solving, or at least asking for a truce, to big problems: the inexorability of history, the burden of now and the guarantee of loss. In “Tonight’s the Day”, Tweedy decides that whatever “Between hard and easy / Surrender and escape” is “the only way”. Later on the album, he sings, “The best I can do / Is try to be happy,” adding, “In a kind of sad way.”

Against the backdrop of the album’s national themes, Tweedy’s quest for serenity can sometimes feel oddly like patriotism. Reflecting on the suffering that occurs in every corner of the world, “All Across the World” runs into a sheepish Toby Keith: “Sorry, I’m glad I’m where I am.” I must say the song sounds a little less wise after this week’s all-American terror in Texas. But Tweedy isn’t being jingoistic; he is trying to count on having a place in a place, a species and an existence that is doomed one way or another. In “El Universo”, he looks at the stars and realizes that the here and now is “the only place / You have to be”. This cosmic thought is country music at its kindest, situating our lives in a way that makes them feel small and therefore precious.

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