Nick Bollinger reviews a sparsely furnished set from Wilco.
A new album from Wilco is a little surprising as it’s barely a year since their last one, the mischievously-titled Star Wars. That record stood out from the rest of their catalogue, and so does this, but for entirely different reasons.
Having developed over the years into a formidable musical machine, which fired on all pistons for their 2011 album The Whole Love, Star Wars was unexpectedly stripped down. The songs were uniformly short, and delivered with a directness that made me think more than once of T.Rex.
The new album apparently stems from those same sessions, which is how they have been able to turn it around so quickly. Yet the two sets are, in many ways, like day and night. A track like ‘Cry All Day’ is typical. It starts out almost as a solo Jeff Tweedy performance, his voice and strummed guitar front and centre. The rest of the band drifts in around him as the song gradually builds, until there’s actually quite a lot going on, though most of it remains peripheral; the spotlight stays firmly on the frontman. And that’s a pattern repeated throughout.
The dozen songs are all Tweedy originals - no co-writes this time – and they create a sense of Tweedy alone with his thoughts, while the other musicians hover in the shadows, adding dashes of colour rather than deep content. It’s at least as stripped down as Star Wars, but where that album turned the Wilco machine into a glam-punk rock band, the effect here is more of an acoustic singer-songwriter, with ambient and sometimes abstract accompaniment.
You can hear the avant-garde and improv backgrounds of guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glen Kotche come into play in a track like ‘Common Sense’. Yet even here, the singer and song stand centre stage. And the reason becomes clearer once you get into the songs themselves. Tweedy has always been an arresting and original lyricist, and these songs have lyrics he wants you to hear. There’s a loose theme running through them, of examining his younger self from the perspective of middle-age. And if that sounds like a terribly dad-rock thing to do, it hardly makes for comforting or armchair listening.
‘Normal American Kids’ makes a strong opening statement, as Tweedy stares down the great divide, not just between middle-age and youth but between the kind of youth he was – the disaffected rock’n’roll rebel – and those ‘normal American kids’ he observed and felt so alienated from – “hated”, as he says at one point in the song. Does he understand them or relate more closely to them now? He never answers that, yet the question is clearly in his mind and floats behind some of the other songs on the record too. And that’s not where the self-examination ends.
“Happiness depends on who you blame”, Tweedy concludes in another song, ‘Happiness’, which seems inspired, at least in part, by a mother’s death. Just that line gives you something that could keep you awake at night, rolling it over in your mind. This isn’t whimsy, however lightly it’s delivered. Tweedy has distilled his thoughts here into tough nuggets of song. Like Star Wars before it, this album has a title that almost undercuts itself: Schmilco, they’ve called it – as if to say, who’s Wilco anyway? And at this point, that’s not a bad question. I hear Schmilco as essentially a Jeff Tweedy solo album, much as I did Sukierae, the 2014 set he made with his son Spencer. It’s personal, introspective and, for the most part, pretty serious. Which is not to say this is what Wilco is going to be from now on. They have thrown enough twists and turns in the past twenty years for a fan to know that.
Songs featured: Cry All Day, If I Ever Was A Child, Common Sense, Normal American Kids, Happiness, Say Goodbye.
Schmilco is available on dBpm Records.