For a band that's perpetually on the road, Wilco has always seemed very domesticated. Maybe it's the way founder Jeff Tweedy acts like a temperamental patriarch, alternately adopting musicians (guitarist Nels Cline) or disowning them (the late Jay Bennett) from his Chicago-based "family." Tweedy's knack for turning the most mundane images — the overflowing ashtray of "Shot in the Arm" or forlornly glowing ATM of "Ashes of American Flags" — into melancholic poetry certainly doesn't hurt. Wilco's music has also significantly settled down over the years, charting an arc from the post–Uncle Tupelo riverboat swagger of 1995's A.M. through 2007's serene and steely Sky Blue Sky.
Still, the band's latest release, Wilco (the Album) is the truest sound of Wilco nesting, one that shows Tweedy more interested in looking after his dependents than forging ahead. His intentions are pretty obvious from the outset: on bouncy opener "Wilco (the Song)," he offers a "sonic shoulder for you to cry on." Tweedy has always been comforting to some degree; he's just never been quite this overt about it.
On "One Wing," the frontman even uses the image of a crippled bird to advance the idea that people, you know, need each other: "One wing will never, ever fly," he sings. "Neither yours nor mine." He sounds paternal and overprotective (and like he just woke up) on one of the album's prettiest songs, the faint piano ballad "Country Disappeared." "Hold out your hand, there's so much you don't understand," he croons as an imaginary beer light flickers behind him. "Stick as close as you can."
Looking after people can be mentally and physically exhausting, though. Eventually, Tweedy — who, as seen in the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, has never exactly been comfortable with being in charge — can't help allowing his ever-present doubts to rise to the surface. On "You and I," a softly lit gossamer duet with Canadian songbird Feist, he waves off growing too close to a lover: "I don't want to know, I don't need to know, everything about you." Even the album's most boisterous rocker, "You Never Know," begins as a lecture — "Come on, children, you're acting like children" — but climaxes with a refrain of "I don't caaaaaaaaare anymore."
It's not that Tweedy doesn't care anymore, though, really. If anything, he cares too much — he vows to fight and kill for you (several times over, in fact) on "I'll Fight." But he is also mature enough to admit, albeit begrudgingly, that he's basically clueless. The "You and I" line, "Once I thought without a doubt/I had it all figured out" is a pretty frank admission from a father, partner, or frontman, stilted verse and all.
There's a lot to like about Wilco (the Album). For one thing, the melodies on "Country Disappeared," "You and I," and "One Wing" rank among the most beautiful Wilco has ever produced. The live versions of more up-tempo cuts like "Bull Black Nova," "You Never Know," and "Sonny Feeling" will almost assuredly have fans risking whiplash this summer.
On the downside, Tweedy can take his role as protector and provider into eye-rolling territory — "I'll die like Jesus on the cross" is an actual lyric from "I'll Fight." There's also too much filler, and not enough of Cline really cutting loose. The disc contains a disquieting sense of complacency, as though it is a greatest hits comp that just happens to feature all-new material.
Wilco's heart is in the right place, however. To wit: within the first five minutes of the record, Tweedy sings, "Wilco loves you, baby." Whatever its flaws, Wilco (the Album) sounds like a labor of love. And who ever said love, domesticated or otherwise, was perfect?