Wilco ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ 20th anniversary review
From his epic overture “Misunderstood” to his loudest “Dreamer In My Dreams”, Wilco’s 1996 double album Be there was a case of remarkable ambition fully realized, a tour de force that shone in both its traditional and experimental extremes. Tweedy was showing how many things he could do, and how spectacularly he could do them. After a detour to create new songs from unused lyrics by Woody Guthrie with Billy Bragg in the 1998s Mermaid avenue, Wilco’s actual discography resumed with the years 1999 Summer teeth, one of those albums that envelop increasingly dark subjects in ever brighter writing and production. Tweedy’s increasingly daring and slyly catchy songs were backed up by arrangements inspired by classic ’60s and’ 70s pop – baroque pop, power-pop, psychedelic pop, just about any pop that you could give you. like listening to Technicolor – and peppered with vivid, mind-bending lyrics about drug addiction, mental health issues and marital conflict. The keyboards were stacked up to the sky; vocal harmonies fluttered towards the surface. Another masterpiece was in the bag.
Wilco’s rise to genius was spurred in part by Jay Bennett, a multi-instrumentalist who joined the group to direct Be there and quickly became a central part of Tweedy’s creative process. Through Summer teeth, the two locked themselves in the studio to write and record together, taking pills the entire time, shutting out the rest of their bandmates. “There wasn’t really a band, just two guys losing their minds in the studio,” soon-to-be-ousted drummer Ken Coomer once told reporter Greg Kot. That dynamic made for incredible music, but in Wilco’s next album cycle it would tear the band apart – a painful streak, but oddly fitting for an album that seemed obsessed with tearing apart the band. ring from Wilco too.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot appeared on the internet 20 years ago this Saturday, a week after September 11 and seven months before its commercial release on April 23, 2002. There are so many stories to tell on the album, and she was told extensively in other places, most famous in the Sam Jones documentary I’m trying to break your heart and Kot’s biography on Wilco Learn to die. The backstory has at times eclipsed the album itself, but it’s worth mentioning, if only in passing, as much of it impacted the music and how it was viewed. First, there was the conflict between the increasingly avant-garde tastes of Tweedy and Coomer’s rigid, old-fashioned drumming approach, which led the group to replace him with Glenn Kotche, a wizard. experimental whose acting seemed to detach Wilco’s songs from gravity. Then there was the power struggle between Tweedy and Bennett, which led to Bennett’s dismissal from the group at the end of the sessions. Along the way, Tweedy brought in Jim O’Rourke, who had worked with Tweedy and Kotche in a side project called Loose Fur, and whose mix of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot deconstructs Wilco’s handcrafted roots rock, reassembling it like a psychedelic sound collage.
Then there was everything that happened between the end of the album and its release, which helped Yankee Hotel Foxtrot assume mythical status even before most people have heard it. When Wilco released the album in the summer of 2001, their longtime label Reprise Records rejected it, arguing it lacked potential success. The band responded by releasing the album for free on their website in September – a bold and unusual move at the time, and one that likely made the album even more experimental for those with an internet connection per line. switched. Finally, Nonesuch Records – a different imprint under the same AOL Time Warner umbrella as Reprise – agreed to release. YHF and support all of Tweedy’s artistic impulses. All this ordeal made Wilco from folk singers to folk heroes: courageous oppressed visionaries who had been shunned by the recording industry but who were heading into the future undeterred. It helped that the album was truly spectacular, that it lived up to all the rave reviews and all the “American Radiohead” hyperbole.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album for all times and all seasons. It looks amazing at dawn and dusk, during afternoon barbecues and after midnight walks, in the oppressive heat of summer and the bitter depths of winter and those glorious phases of transition between two when the air is crisp with possibility. When I’m happy, it elevates my joy. When I’m sad, it accentuates my melancholy. It’s the movie I can put in the background because I’ve seen it a million times, but I can just as easily find myself immersed again. I didn’t have to revisit it to write this retrospective because I never really stopped listening to it.
From the moment the first squealing keyboard drone descends, YHF is heightened reality to wander through – the essence of classic rock waves from our home in Belleville refracted through Chicago’s bustling post-rock, jazz and indie scene that had captured Tweedy’s imagination. It was the days of Tortoise and Califone and Gastr Del Sol and Sea And Cake. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot drawn as much from this world as from Bob Dylan and Big Star. Tweedy has remained rooted in the singer-songwriter tradition that has always influenced his work, but he was freshly inspired by albums like the fingerstyle folk opus of O’Rourke. Bad timing and a collection of shortwave radio recordings called The Conet project. (This is where they got the recurring sample “yankee… hotel… foxtrot” from the bombed-out finale of “Poor Places.”) Dour dirge as “Radio Cure” made perfect sense, where a brass section at the Beatles and a Pixies-style guitar solo could coexist on the same country love song.
“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” a sleepy sprawl that seems to float a few inches above the city streets, serves as the entryway to the album, setting the mood for an hour of roots songs. -rock damaged art dotted with surreal images. Musically, it’s accessible but unconventional, playing with a sort of dreamlike logic. As with the rest of the record, Tweedy’s lyrics can be difficult to analyze, but they have a perfect emotional meaning, his deepest anxieties translating into Rorschach’s verbal stains. Against organ walls, dizzy acoustic strings and a controlled avalanche of percussions, he begins: let go? Kotche’s playing stops and begins with supernatural elasticity, lending structure to the scintillating noise before everything crumbles into magnificent chaos. Before unplugging, O’Rourke sews Tweedy’s vocals later in the album into the swirling racket. In the end, all that’s left is high-pitched, shrill skree.
“Kamera” controls much of that savagery but still sounds like a transformed Wilco, reduced to skeletal minimalism and breathing translucent sighs. Of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot continues to change and transform while maintaining a similar depleted resilience throughout. In bursts of clarity between his more esoteric reflections, Tweedy’s tense but strident tenor channels powerful poetic sentiments: “All my lies are always wishes”; “Every song is a comeback”; “I have reservations about so many things, but not about you.” On the philosophical “War On War”, the rock of the heart becomes krautrock. On the deeply personal “Reservations”, all this rhythmic emphasis gives way to a dismal free shimmer. There are songs that mostly play it directly, like the immaculate “Pot Kettle Black” and others that sink into absolute madness, like “Poor Places”. And near the center of the tracklist is “Jesus, etc.” “, A tender mid-tempo slide that strikes an impossible balance between the Eagles and Steve Reich. This is possibly the best song of Tweedy’s life, and it continues to spin my orbit to this day.
Shortly after Wilco’s debut YHF, people sang along with his songs at their shows. Obviously, the album was reaching listeners more than the executives expected. Some observers were also drawing odd parallels to the terrorist attacks that hit America a week before the album’s premiere, especially in the middle part of the tracklist. There was “War On War”, with its vision of “going through flaming doors” and the promise that “you must die if you want to be alive”. There was Tweedy, from the darkest depths of the album, hailing “the ashes of American flags”. “Jesus, etc. In particular, with his visions of tall buildings shaking as voices escaped singing sad and sad songs, ominously associated with a cover art featuring Twin Towers – a photo of Chicago’s iconic Marina City , taken by documentary filmmaker Sam Jones. More broadly, the mood of the album seemed to predict the grim uncertainty of this moment: a depressed and dystopian Americana for a depressed and dystopian America. Yet the album continued to resonate long after that moment. The sonic splendor they captured here is timeless. The desire they have drawn is too deep to be confined to history.
The relationships people have forged with this record were just as deep. Fans each have their favorite Wilco albums, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the The Wilco album – the one that cemented their stature as one of the great American rock bands of all time. Like Bertrand Goldberg, Wilco had transplanted the countryside into the urban landscape and ended up with a striking new composite of urban and rural. It was a jaw-dropping feat at the time, and two decades later it’s no less impressive. I’m not alone when I say Yankee Hotel Foxtrot occupies an even bigger place in my life as Marina City towers over Chicago, and I can’t be the only one making a riverside pilgrimage every time I visit to pay homage to my all-time favorite album. Wilco put these tricks on their album cover as a tribute to their city, but for those of us under Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they became a monument to Wilco and to the album that made them legends.