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Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Posted: May 7,
Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (YHF) comes with a lot of
baggage. Recorded during the first half of 2001, the album was initially
slated for a summer release by the band's label, Reprise, only to be pushed
back, and finally dropped altogether. Certain executives at Reprise felt the
record was too inaccessible and needed changes. Wilco staunchly refused to
alter a single note. Fortunately for the group, and the rest of us, Reprise
allowed Wilco to buy back the master tapes and shop YHF to other
labels. Enter Nonesuch (ironically, like Reprise, a Warner Brothers
subsidiary), which agreed to put out the record as Wilco intended. Chalk one
up for those who stick to their guns, because YHF is not only Wilco's
finest achievement to date, but a bona fide masterpiece as well.
Drawing inspiration from such diverse sources as Chicago's famed Marina
Towers (which eventually wound up as the cover shot) to the Conet Project,
a four-disc collection of mysterious shortwave radio transmissions that may
or may not be Cold War-era governments passing coded messages to remote
agents, YHF is the culmination of Wilco's musical vision as well as a
fascinating mediation on how we communicate in an increasingly
Whereas Wilco’s Being There (1996) was a refinement (of quantum
leap proportions, actually) over the band’s 1995 debut, A.M., (thanks
primarily to the addition of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett), YHF
can be seen as a clearer distillation of the marvelously listenable but
overproduced Summerteeth (1999). YHF clarifies all the ideas
about chaos, love and the perils of success that ringleader Jeff Tweedy's
explored on earlier efforts, while Jim O'Rourke's production reigns in
the indulgent tendencies evident on the prior releases, making for a tightly
focused yet intricately layered work. Sadly, Jay Bennett left Wilco after
the completion of the record and the future sound of the band will certainly
be measured against the lack of his presence.
"I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" opens YHF with a brooding,
drum-laden buildup that bears similarities to, and improves on, Being
There's bombastic lead track "Misunderstood." A ringing alarm clock and
disquieting piano bars tickle unpleasant memories from our narrator after he
awakens from an all night bender ("American aquarium drinker") and
recalls -- with stinging clarity -- his actions from the previous evening. After
venturing off to torpedo a budding relationship ("I assassin down the
avenue"), he eventually passed out, but not before proclaiming his true
feelings for the person he'd just pushed away ("I'm the man who loves you").
"I Am Trying…" perfectly encapsulates a man who's only happy being
miserable, working hard to cripple an otherwise promising relationship.
"Radio Cure" could be about the same man, sober now and trying to get back what
was lost; not self-pitying, but owning up to his obvious shortcomings,
taking responsibility for his actions and acknowledging that "distance has
no way of making love understandable," as radio static crackles in the
background. "War On War" tackles optimism in the face of adversity, its
opening acoustic strum giving way to radio squawks and hissing bleats
interwoven with feedback drenched turmoil. Through all that hope shines
through: "You have to learn how to die/If you wanna wanna be alive." "Jesus,
Etc." with its soulful horns and earnest plea that "our love is all we
have," reinforces the album's central theme of the stark division between
the loved and unloved, contrasting it with a celestial hierarchy separating
bright stars from dying suns.
"Ashes Of American Flags," sporting a windswept, spaciously played and
patiently introspective structure, exposes Tweedy at his most profoundly
understated ("I know I would die/If I could come back new") and with a
penchant for making the most mundane observations sound positively epic: "I
could spend three dollars/and sixty-three cents/on diet coca-cola/and unlit
The peak track (and thematic center) of YHF is "I'm The Man Who
Loves You," a lurching coda to the album's opener. Reiterating the closing
drunken slur from "I Am Trying..." the song's dirty, ragged guitar breaks
punctuate the narrator's efforts to write a letter of reconciliation to his
departed lover, crumpling up sheet after sheet but slowly gaining confidence
in his titular statement of purpose by song's end.
The penultimate “Poor Places” contains some of the most insightful,
heartfelt lyrics Tweedy’s yet penned, while the closing "Reservations"
warbles drowsily in a slightly off-kilter, drifting-off-to-sleep
as-the-TV-plays manner that offers a final promise, tinged with uncertainty
as a brooding storm rolls in: "I've got reservations about so many
things/But not about you."
There's an overcast density to YHF that makes for some heavy
slogging at points. Fortunately, more upbeat tracks, like "Kamera," "Heavy
Metal Drummer" and "Pot Kettle Black," are smartly sequenced
and keep matters from becoming overly
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is weighty in its ideas and execution, but
it's hardly dour, offering an optimistic outlook throughout. It does,
however, demand close listening. Not to say that it should be relegated to
the insular domain of "headphone music," but there's a lot happening here.
It's to O'Rourke's and Tweedy's credit that the final mix never gets too top
heavy. And, unlike the furtive numbers stations filling the Conet Project
that inspired it, YHF does more than zip across the airwaves and then
vanish -- a one-way communication offering no hope of a reply. It exists just
as the band intended, spared from languishing in some anonymous vault for
countless years before finally reaching the masses. That alone is a triumph
worth broadcasting to all willing to listen.
For those interested in the ultimate, unscripted behind the
scenes look at the creation of an album, Sam Jones' film
I Am Trying To
Break Your Heart documents the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,
from the initial recording of the songs, through the postproduction
process, and eventual break with the record company.
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