Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch)
Credit a confluence of factors, but the Wilco mystique has long been blown so out of proportion—documentaries! books! rehab! lineup changes!—that the music itself probably gets a little too much attention. After all, were it not for the kerfuffle surrounding Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, let alone the paradigm shift of September 11, would that disc have been hailed as a masterpiece? And were it not for that disc being hailed as a masterpiece, would its follow-up A Ghost Is Born have been given the leeway the uneven album received?
Indeed, the inevitable backlash has belatedly ramped up just in time for Sky Blue Sky, Wilco’s first album since singer Jeff Tweedy emerged from rehab, the first album by the group’s most stable lineup to date, and perhaps Wilco’s first album to make you wish for a little more unevenness. Those accustomed to the band’s musical drama may be put off by the smooth-sailing arrangements, which, save for Nels Cline’s occasional manic guitar solos, are straight out of the singer-songwriter ’70s.
Yet it’s not the gentle melodies of “Either Way,” “Impossible Germany,” “Side with the Seeds” or “Please Be Patient with Me” that make such songs so intriguing, or even the deceptively tricky twists and turns of songs like “Hate It Here,” but Tweedy’s most straightforward lyrics in recent memory. Rather than hide behind cluttered metaphors, Tweedy espouses a newfound clarity, and rather than play up domestic drama, he instead offers reconciliation. It’s an interesting choice of direction, considering it robs the tunes of the emotional drama and conflict that make the best Wilco songs so compelling. But it takes a real cynic to dismiss a man’s struggle for happiness as bland, when that apparent contentedness is exactly what helps the record stand out from the angst-ridden crowd.— Joshua Klein