This album is warmly anticipated from the music critics. This is because Wilco are one of those bands that critics love – each album is completely different and there have been enough stories surrounding them that it means writers and critics can wax lyrical on the band without even properly reviewing the album. I also think they are an intensely musical band which allows for critics to studiously analyse each track.
But I’ll try not to do too much of that, although I must say that this album is the first recorded with their newish line-up and the first new recorded material from the Chicago based band since singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy went into rehab following the recording of their last album, the Grammy winning A Ghost is Born in 2004. And there is a reason why I say this – this album seems to prove that Jeff Tweedy is in a happier, more content place than in the past. Gone is the feeling that each song is a representation of a nervous breakdown or a headache, in are predominately slow, mellow ballads which although still lyrically ambiguous and revealing of insecurities, seem to say that Tweedy is able to deal with these issues much better than in the past.
Opener, ‘Either Way’ sets the tone for the whole album. It starts with what could be considered Tweedy’s most optimistic statement ever put to record, “Maybe the Sun will shine today”. Here Tweedy’s vocals are warm, inviting and understanding. The topic is that most universal of rock topics, love. But it is not a simple love song – it is about a lover who may or may not love him, about a love that may or may not be reborn, about a love that whether it happens or not, the protagonist will always understand. It’s all about those complicated intricacies of love and relationships.
“Maybe you still love me
Maybe you don’t
Either you will or you won’t
Maybe you just need some time alone
I will try to understand
Everything has its plan
I’m gonna’ stay right for you.”
‘You Are My Face’ sees Tweedy descend into absurdist poetry. It is a great song that uses poetry to create mood – on a literal level it means little, but inside of me it reveals an array of emotions. Here the song uses trademark Wilco guitar riffs to punctuate the stanzas with much needed changes of tempo, pace and mood. However, as with many of Wilco’s recorded tunes it feels as if this song will come into its own when taken to the live stage. In many respects one could say this of all the songs on Sky Blue Sky – they are merely sketches to which live performance will add colour.
‘Hell is Here’ is another classic Wilco tune. Here the protagonist bemoans the end of a relationship and keeps himself busy just to keep his mind sane. Even though deep down he knows that his lover won’t be coming home. It also has the brilliant construction/deconstruction of a song that Wilco so seem to love doing. This is a great lyrical performance by Tweedy who manages to remain calm, warm and almost needy when singing, yet also is able to completely rock out during the chorus section.
‘Walken’ is perhaps the most catchy of all the songs on Sky Blue Sky. The song seems to be inspired by Randy Newman but still incorporates the brilliant guitar riffing of Nels Cline who always seems to crowbar his solos into songs in the most majestic and beautiful fashion. Again, this is a song which will go down well in the live context (it descends into a Thin Lizzyesque guitar riffis). This sudden change of tempo and rhythm is used on a number of songs on Sky Blue Sky including ‘Impossible Germany’ and ‘Shake It Off’ and in many respects has become a trademark of the Wilco sound circa 2004-2007.
‘The final track ‘On and On and On’ is perhaps the most disturbing song on the record. It sees the protagonist plea to his lover not to deny those feelings inside. The musical backing is great, with drummer, Glenn Kotche showing off his skills while the guitar keeps a troubling atmosphere present throughout. A great closer.
Sky Blue Sky also has a number of tunes that could have formed part of a Jeff Tweedy solo album. Here the backing is sparse and the focus of the songs are on the words. ‘You Leave Me Like You Found Me’, sees Tweedy look at the end of a relationship and how he’s looking for someone just like his former lover. ‘Please be Patient with Me’ is also similar to ‘Leave Me Like You Found Me’ in that it too could have been a solo-acoustic song.
‘What Light’ has a little more backing noise but is a truly beautiful ditty with a very traditional country arrangement including violin, steel and acoustic guitar.
“If you feel like singing along
And you want other people to sing along
Just say what you feel
Don’t let anyone say its wrong
And if you’re trying to paint a picture
But you’re not sure which colours belong
Just paint what you see
Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong”
Perhaps this is Wilco’s way of getting fans to accept their new direction and new songs! It certainly is different from both A Ghost is Born and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. What Wilco have done is produce another quality album, that bears repeated listening. But even more important than that, it is proof that Tweedy doesn’t need to be strung out on anti-depressents and goodness knows what to write powerful songs.
This is another album from Wilco that deserves critical and popular success. I’m sure they will get the critical acclaim, the question is whether the record buying public will adopt Wilco into the mainstream. But ultimately this matters little. All that matters is that if you are a fan of the band or alt.country then the purchase of Sky Blue Sky will not leave you disappointed and will bear numerous repeated listenings. Different to anything they have done before, this album needs some time to sink in but the results are well worth the wait.