Before there was Wilco, there was an alternative country band named Uncle Tupelo which enjoyed moderate success with the dual lead singers Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. The issue with Uncle Tupelo proved to be that the label “dual” only ended up being true in terms of song credits because Farrar and Tweedy grew to detest each other as they spent more time in the project, continuing up until Farrar decided to quit the band in 1994. This left the remaining group members in a bit of an awkward situation, but likely one that Tweedy was glad to find himself in as all of the other members of Uncle Tupelo sans-Farrar decided to stick with him post-split. The band got renamed to Wilco, a purposefully ironic term which is short for “Will Comply”, and released their debut album A.M. in 1995.
A.M. stayed true to the alternative-country sound that the band had been accustomed to playing in Uncle Tupelo in many ways, but don’t get that classification confused with the travesty of what is today called country. It was more Americana then that and by many accounts a successful debut album for the group which lent the band some credibility that they would still be releasing good music. Tweedy took over full ownership for vocals and song-writing, but a lot of people at the time held the opinion that Wilco would prove to be the less successful group in comparison to Farrar’s new project Son Volt and their better reviewed debut Trace.
The opening track for Being There is named “Misunderstood”, and that track is infinitely more ambitious than anything that A.M. could claim. The message is sent that the band was going to try and take a step away from their previous sound and try to create a more meaningful brand of music, and it was met with better reviews and more album sales than their debut, an impressive feat for a double album which was written and recorded in the span of a year. In hindsight I actually end up preferring to listen to their debut over this, but the reason for that is because in terms of Wilco’s discography they went on to progress way past what was being accomplished on Being There. Still, this album served as a good starting point for the sound which would evolve into Summerteeth.
Mermaid Avenue was a projected that started when Woody Guthrie’s daughter approached Billy Bragg and asked him to record songs using a collection of never-before-recorded lyrics which Guthrie had composed. Bragg obliged and recruited Wilco to help out with the project, and today it’s actually evolved to include Mermaid Avenue, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, and Mermaid Avenue Vol. III (which get combined into the box set Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions). Good recordings to listen to, but unfortunately not-overly significant for the purpose of this article as it was a two artist collaboration where neither one was responsible for the lyrics.
I would argue this album serves as the birthing point of the modernized Wilco who drifted farther away from their alternative-country label and spent more time in the studio with Jeff Tweedy and new band member Jay Bennet. The song-writing ability sky-rocketed on the transition to this album as all of a sudden the band could claim ownership to songs like “She’s A Jar”, “I’m Always In Love”, and “Via Chicago” among others. It’s nearly a classic album in my opinion, but the sad news is that people generally didn’t agree on that consensus until well after the album was released in a similar manner to Weezer with Pinkerton. Record sales weren’t as good as they had been for Being There and the band struggled to claim a true single as well, so the pressure was on for them to deliver with their next release.
I’m a gigantic self-proclaimed fan of this album and included it in a post in my ‘Essential Albums’ series, so understandably I will tell you that this is the peak of the band. The product is beautiful and a must-listen, but my preference here is going to be to cover the story of what was happening with the band in the background which gets covered very well in the documentary named after the album opener “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”. Once again Tweedy had found himself a partner who he couldn’t find himself able to collaborate with in Jay Bennet (maybe it’s a Jay thing), although this time the issue wasn’t with lead vocals/songwriting but an issue in the recording studio. In my opinion Bennet was an incredibly important factor in the success of Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but him and Tweedy didn’t see eye to eye to many times during the recording of this album and Tweedy dismissed him from the group once the album had been finalized.
The album was then brought into Reprise records, a company under new ownership which told the band that their album would not be released because it wouldn’t sell. It was a cost-cutting maneuver by the label, although they were surprisingly classy afterwards in offering to give Wilco the rights to their album for free despite the band offering to pay $50,000 for them beforehand, and Wilco moved on by releasing the album via stream on their website for free. This gave them a rise in popularity and the album began to receive rave reviews, marking this as one of the poster-boy examples for a record company that didn’t know enough about one of the bands it manages and their target audience.
I think in the context of where the band was before A Ghost Is Born, it’s hard to not view the album as a disappointment even if it received good reviews upon release. For me it’s because it sounds so much less ambitious and a return to the simpler song structure similar to what they’d used on earlier album Being There. Wilco was once again a band which not only featured Tweedy but allowed him to dominate the product, and I don’t think that was a good outcome for the band. This being said the album is easily enjoyable as a stand alone product and features some really good pure rock moments and a majority of good tracks. Plus it won the grammy in 2005 for best alternative music album, so that has to mean something.
I really liked the approach that Wilco took to Sky Blue Sky as the band decided to go for a simpler and prettier sound than they’d done on either of their previous three releases and a better produced sound than their first two albums. “Either Way” is a song about just allowing things to work out, and “You Are My Face” seems to exist to torture fans who long to know song meanings (likely that this one was written line-for-line in much the same way that a party game story is composed, as the band announced that they did take this strategy for one of their songs). It’s like a throwback to the alternative-country roots which the band started out with, but keeping the improved production and newer rock qualities in the process.
It means something to name an album after your band name because it suggests that your current music is a good representative of the band as a whole. Wilco’s Wilco starts off with the song “Wilco” (awesome) which directly speaks to the band’s notably loyal fan base with the chorus “Oh this is a fact, that you need to know/ Wilco, Wilco, Wilco will love you baby”. At this point I’d say that the dad-rock label that’s been tossed onto this band actually becomes somewhat accurate, but that shouldn’t be to much of a surprise to listeners since by the time this album was released Tweedy had been a dad for nearly a decade. Even if it falls into the dad-rock categorization, there are some awesome other bands in that group (The Hold Steady comes to mind), and I think most Wilco fans out there enjoyed this release (and rightfully so).
The most recent Wilco album was a cool step for the band to take because it was their first album released under their brand-new self-created label dBpm (they covered Nick Lowe’s “I Love My Label” as bonus material) and it marked Tweedy taking on a larger part in being the producer for the band. Consistently fun and featuring the first ever Wilco duet as Tweedy partners with Feist for “You and I”, The Whole Love plays as a continuation of Wilco which suggests that this will be the sound of the band in their future releases.
Track Picks: “I Might“, “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)“, ”Black Moon“
My Ranking of Wilco Albums:
1) Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
4) Being There
5) The Whole Love
6) Sky Blue Sky
8) A Ghost is Born