I feel like the release of Wilco’s most recent album, 2009’s Wilco (The Album), and Jay Bennett’s untimely death, have both allowed us to gain some perspective on Wilco’s 15 year career. The first realization is that, eight years later, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot remains the best album in Wilco’s catalogue, followed closely by Being There and Summerteeth. Like any great band at their peak – and Wilco from 1996 through 2001 were indeed great – it’s hard to take a pick of any of these three albums. As with REM’s Murmur, Reckoning and Life’s Rich Pageant, each one fits a different mood. But for me, long after the hype surrounding YHF has come and gone, it still remains the strongest, most cohesive set of songs this band has put together. There’s not anything resembling a clunker on the record and while people always like to claim that it is avant garde and experimental, I actually don’t think of it as much of either. To me, it sounds like that perfect mix of fractured pop rock mixed with timeless melodies. In a weird way, it’s not that much different than M. Ward’s 2006 masterpiece “Post-War”. It’s a little trippy, but not psychedelic, the melodies are nice on the surface, but the songs all seem to have this strong hummable undercurrent that reveal themselves to be better and better with each listen.
“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” is first song and the centerpiece of YHF in that it sets the template for what is to come. At the time, many of the reviewers were terribly focused on the idea that these songs were experimental and non-linear and I think much of that is owed to this opening track. “Heavy Metal Drummer”, “I’m The Man Who Loves You” and “Reservations”, for example, were all new, improved tweaks on tried and true Wilco song templates. They broke little new ground on that level. But when the drums kick in on the opening sequence to “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, you immediately knew that Wilco had moved into a new realm -- for one, you noticed that they had a new drummer and it changed their whole approach to the songs. And when Tweedy’s voice kicks in, you hear traces of “Via Chicago” or “She’s a Jar” in his lyrics, but the whole offering seems way more abstract than anything they had done to that point:
“I am an American aquarium drinker, I assassin down the avenue.”
The song itself, to me, defines the whole feel of this album, and what makes it so great – that many of the best songs are somehow fractured and dense all at the same time.
Wilco would go on to fire Bennett and they would never be the same. A Ghost Is Born was a cool record, if not one I love to listen to all the time. It was a strong set of songs, all fairly cold and institutionalized, as if they came from the white walls Tweedy’s rehab facility. By then they had basically reinvented themselves as Wilco Mach 3 (or, more accurately “Jeff Tweedy and The Wilcos”), with a completely new lineup of kick-ass musicians. They released the enjoyable but somewhat forgettable Sky Blue Sky and then, this year, the enjoyable, but less forgettable Wilco (The Album).
They have not gotten back to that five year period where everything they touched was rock n roll gold. And that’s fine. But looking back now, it’s nice to see that YHF was not just some overhyped media story. It’s their defining moment as a band and it’s definitely one of the best albums of the decade.