Album Review: Wilco - The Whole Love

by Mac Wilson

The band releases its debut album to considerable acclaim, although overshadowed somewhat by other like-minded records that year. The second album expands on the strengths of the first's sonic template, while their third sees the band expanding their sonic vocabulary in establishing lush, even beautiful landscapes belied by undercurrents of paranoia and desperation. Their fourth album (which they worked on with a famed experimental musician) is immediately hailed as a game-changer and an instant masterpiece, establishing them as one of the greatest rock bands in America. The fifth album expands on many of these same ideas, while not quite receiving the same acclaim—however, in a vacuum, it arguably matches its predecessor on every level. During this time, the band releases an acclaimed live album, and members also collaborate with a British musician on a project incorporating "found" material. From here, the band dials back its experimental tendencies and releases two albums that are very song-oriented, with a particular emphasis on classic songwriting. Fans grow increasingly apprehensive over the change in direction, although the band's live reputation is still sterling. The band's eighth album is a pale washout in comparison to their previous work; tensions between the mercurial lead singer and the rest of the band reach their boiling point, and the band breaks up shortly thereafter.

This band, of course, is the Talking Heads.

Up until the final sentence, however, you could just as easily be describing Wilco. Having recognized the synchronicities as far back as 2007, I was biting my nails in anticipation of The Whole Love, hoping the band could avoid the pratfalls of Naked. I'm happy to report that Wilco's biography will not end the same as the Heads' (yet, anyway).

The most likely antecedent to The Whole Love is U2's 2000 "comeback" album All That You Can't Leave Behind, which was a deliberate, focused effort to "reapply for the job of best band in the world" by making an album that played upon all the strengths accrued during the band's lifetime. The Whole Love, thus, takes elements from Wilco's past (excepting the alt-country phase) and rolls them together into something we like to call a "crowd-pleaser."

One of the first things that's struck me is the wealth of detail that went into making this album. There are countless little musical asides, swatches of instrumentation, micro-solos and recurring layers, which make the record consistently interesting and will help it over time, as well. Following the comparatively stripped-down Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), it's nice to hear a sense of adventure to the songs and the ways they unfold. Playing "I Spy" with the numerous classic rock/pop references and allusions is also a ton of fun.

The song that's been stuck in my head the last few days is "Dawned on Me," which is backed by a lush melody and a happy-sounding chorus. But if we've learned anything in the world of Wilco, it's that if things sound too happy, they're not. Jeff Tweedy sings in the chorus, "I can't help it if I fall in love with you again," which is on its face an endearing sentiment, but couldn't you also view it as obsessive... or a little creepy? This act of subversion—setting up dark sagas with impossibly cheery tunes—was a hallmark of their Summerteeth record, so when you read all the reviewers referencing that album, just know that they have a point.

"Dawned on Me" also prominently incorporates one of the album's most prominent motifs: the sun. The song comes on the heels of "Sunloathe," whose narrator despises the sun to the extent that the song may or may not end with his suicide. Other explicit sun references dot the album, as well as very subtle ones—on the back cover, you'll see that all the O's have been replaced with solid, dark orbs. There is even a song called "Standing O," and all the instances of "oh" on the album are stylized as "O" in the lyric sheet. Be mindful, also, of the homophone for sun: son. The album's extended (12 minute!) closer, "One Sunday Morning," further complicates matters by outlining an argument between father and son regarding the existence of God. This casts the rest of the album in a new light—what are the implications of a song called "Sonloathe"? When Tweedy sings that he might set the kids on fire, maybe he's serious. After all, he's already dreamed about killing his girlfriend last night in "Via Chicago," then he actually killed her for real in his "Bull Black Nova," so would it be that much of a stretch? (Domestic abuse is a sad but fascinating undercurrent in all of Wilco's music, continued on The Whole Love, replete with references to "punching you in the nose," to which Tweedy urges "don't over-react!")

At their best, Wilco prompt the listener to lose themselves in the music, devising multiple interpretations while also enjoying supremely catchy music. I can give no higher compliment to The Whole Love than to favorably compare it to Summerteeth, and while it may not reach the peaks of the Wilco catalog, it is clearly their best record in nearly a decade.