With Wilco, it’s all about the (classic rock) swagger. Look at the cover: It’s a goddamned camel. On a balcony. With a party hat. Then there’s that title, Wilco (The Album). It’s redundant. It’s redundant because it can be. There doesn’t have to be a reason. It’s a joke, as if the camel isn’t enough of a clue. Yet, underneath all that superfluous nonsense is the band making a point: Wilco is the shit. That’s all. It’s a tad smug, yes, but it’s also true if you consider its rich catalogue.
Wilco finds the band writing a set of mature songs. Not that Wilco has ever been sophomoric or amateurish, but here the band lets the songs speak for themselves meaning that there isn’t much besides the actual song structures to explore. Wilco understands its own ability to craft songs that don’t require extraneous material in order to be valuable – that’s swagger. Few songs have anything beyond what is absolutely essential for the song to be complete. Wilco isn’t expansive or the defining statement of a band like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It also isn’t a reaction to said album type like Sky Blue Sky. Instead, Wilco is the middle ground between the two extremes: an acknowledgement of the fact that the studio can be utilized as an instrument itself while concurrently an affirmation that songs need to not only be constructed, but also be allowed to exist on their own. Case in point, ‘You and I,’ a duet with Feist, is a gentle country-rocker about true love featuring only minimal background keyboard and guitar effects to emphasize the space between lovers in the song. Likewise, the piano ballad ‘Country Disappeared’ contains just enough guitar reverb to decorate lines like “I won’t take no/ I won’t let you go/ All by yourself/ Oh no you need my help” and “Hold out your hand/ There’s so much you don’t understand/ So stick as close as you can/ all of the best laid plans…”
Wilco’s swagger spills into the lyrics, as well. The quasi-title track ‘Wilco (The Song)’ contains the not-conceited-at-all line “Have you had enough of the old?/ Tired of being exposed to the cold?/ Put on your headphones before you explode/ …Wilco.” The song basically discusses Wilco (the band) as a way to deal with the outside world. It’s both self-deprecating and true simultaneously. Meanwhile, ‘Bull Black Nova’ is the funkiest thing that Wilco’s done in years, maybe ever. It struts around for four minutes and then takes the last ninety seconds to let a guitar duel reach hysteria while Jeff Tweedy imagines a man mourning the loss of his girlfriend that he just killed: “There’s blood in the trunk/ I can’t calm down/ I freak out/ I black out.” It’s danceable, dark, honest, and powerful every single time.
Wilco’s never put out a bad record, and Wilco (The Album) furthers this thesis. What’s more significant is the fact that the band knows as much. Wilco’s command of its own songwriting is as adept as any band in music, then or now. This record is no odd departure from its tried-and-true country/folk-rock that’s been perfected over the last decade and a half. It’s Wilco, you know what you’re gonna get if you have any transitory knowledge of their work. And the band knows it doesn’t have to be different or strange in order to be great. It’s rather arrogant, to be sure. But if you’re that skilled what’s the harm in admitting it?