Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
The band's last album A Ghost is Born was, upon its release, often referred to as a "transitional" record. Whatever direction critics imagined Wilco would take following that effort, I'd surmise that few would have predicted the band would follow it with a record as straightforward, understated, and mellow as Sky Blue Sky. Accordingly, this album is precisely the type to usher in a new era for the band and Ghost's "transitional" label now seems apt. Considering the plight of a group unsure of how to follow-up a masterpiece like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they produced an album that-- notwithstanding a couple of experimental clunkers-- had more than its share of good tunes. In fact, if you start the Ghost on track 4, it's pretty solid. But to many ears, it came across as tired and bloated and I can understand that criticism to some extent. On Sky Blue Sky, Wilco's mid-career growing pains give way to an adulthood marked by quite confidence and assured professionalism.
Instead of employing their recent tendency to obscure songs in noise and experimentation, here the songs are given ample open space and room to breathe. In light of Jeff Tweedy's well-documented struggle with painkillers, it would not be a stretch to view his newly found soberity as a key in informing the clarity in the songwriting and vocal performances on this album. Sky Blue Sky's most apparent sonic reference point is 70's-Americana and the breezy feel of the album is unmistakably the product of a band completely comfortable in their own skin. While the songwriting is clearly the focus of any Wilco album, Nels Cline's amazing guitar work occasionally comes close to stealing the show-- see, i.e., the outro of "Impossible Germany". The laid-back and loose vibe of this album supports the accounts of how the album came together organically and spontaneously in the studio.
Album opener "Either Way" is a sleeper and could potentially be overlooked by many. This is a shame, because although it initially comes across as unassuming and deceptively simple, its masterfully layered, tasteful performances provide an excellent example of musical economy. "You are My Face" starts as a gentle ballad, then Nels Cline's inspired guitar work serves to transition the tune into a shuffling pop-ditty with playful organ figures, and then finally returns to where it started. "Impossible Germany", a recent live favorite, is one of the most immediately catchy tunes on the album and features a killer dual-guitar outro. The title track and "Please Be Patient With Me" find Tweedy in alt-country balladeer mode and the latter could be viewed as addressing the listener directly-- imploring us to hang in there until the album's second half picks up steam. The album's last three tracks are among the strongest: "Walken" is a top-tapping piano-led pop tune which features Tweedy employing his best McCartney-type falsetto in the choruses and some album's best guitar work; "What Light" is a weary, yet ultimately uplifting tune that, like "The Late Greats" from Ghost, vaguely refers to the modern music community; and "On and On and On" is an excellent closer that forgoes the album's breezy vibe for heavier subject matter, and thus, is the most emotionally-affecting tune present.
Every new Wilco album is greeted with a bit trepidation and uneasiness on the part of their fanbase, and Sky Blue Sky will be no different. What is different this time around is the fact that this album is difficult to pigeonhole stylistically. The album is not easily referenced by referring to one of their previous efforts, nor can it be easily tagged as falling within a particular genre (e.g., "experimental rock" or "alt-country", etc.). Provided listeners approach this album without preconceived notions that is too "soft-rock" or "easy listening" or particularly lofty expectations that is a "return to form" (whatever that really means) or "hits upon the best of the band's back catalog", they will undoubtedly find something they enjoy here.
Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment is that the band seems to have made the album they wanted to make on their own terms. Despite the amount of critical praise they've received and the fanbase they've garnered, they've done so without fear of how this album would be received by others. That type of move takes balls-- and taking these kinds of risks is part of what made Wilco great in the first place.
Buy the album here