Whilst it would be a Herculean task to argue that ‘Sky Blue Sky’ is in the same league as Wilco’s best work, the critical reaction to it has still left me somewhat perplexed. Its harshest critics seem to be not only labouring under the misapprehension that Wilco are at the vanguard of experimentalism, but also assuming that music can be compartmentalised into neat, mutually exclusive categories. For these writers, an album is either experimental or retrogressive, forward thinking or backward looking.
The argument in pretty much every review has been that ‘Sky Blue Sky’ represents a major volte-face and a retrenchment from the adventurous wilds of ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ and ‘A Ghost is Born’. The Observer this weekend called it a futile exercise in ‘rock archaeology’. I rather like the idea of ‘rock archaeology’ actually – it suggests an uncovering of something hitherto undiscovered from music’s illustrious past, rather than a simple homage or borrowing. Even more lazily, Rob Mitchum on Pitchfork suggests it reveals the ‘dadrock’ side the band has ‘always tried to hide’.
This is palpable nonsense – Wilco have always worn their influences rather proudly. Even the more outré moments on ‘A Ghost is Born’ (the krautrock ‘Spiders’ for example) have harked back mainly to the 1970s for inspiration. Even on ‘Yankee…’ and ‘…Ghost…’, Wilco’s raison d’etre was never to experiment, but rather to synthesise (extremely successfully) a range of musical approaches. They have never simply been a ‘dadrock’ band in the manner of Ocean Colour Scene or Kula Shaker (bands that even resorted to dressing as if from an earlier decade), but they’ve hardly been determined modernists either.
I can find plenty of evidence to suggest that the band’s striving for synthesis continues on ‘Sky Blue Sky’. With its current line-up including the intuitive, nimble guitarist Nels Cline and brilliant drummer Glenn Kotche, Wilco has more of a group dynamic than on previous studio albums, and I don’t agree that the band are ‘passive’ or ‘sidelined’ on this album as some have suggested. Comparisons with Fleetwood Mac or Supertramp are pretty lazy – much more accurate reference points would be early Steely Dan (when they combined a love of country and soul with their jazz chops) or Little Feat. ‘A Ghost is Born’ actually set a number of precedents for the mix of lush impressionism and guitar interplay that lies at the heart of ‘Sky Blue Sky’ – think of ‘At Least That’s What You Said’, ‘Hell is Chrome’, ‘Muzzle Of Bees’ and ‘The Late Greats’ and you’re not actually that far away from the sound the band conjure here. There are no tracks ending in fifteen minutes of feedback, but the majority of Wilco fans may well be relieved at this.
The fist half of ‘Sky Blue Sky’ is dynamic, expressive and enticing. To simply dismiss it as a retro-rock album misses the intricate detail and intriguing mystery of ‘Impossible Germany’, or the dramatic, restless soulfulness at the heart of ‘Side With The Seeds’. There’s also the unpredictable, stop-start jerkiness of ‘Shake it Off’ and the light, dusty country shuffles of the title track and ‘Either Way’. Jeff Tweedy appears to be singing with much greater confidence, and there’s a fresh emphasis on melody and mood. The guitar playing is fluid and inventive, particularly when Tweedy and Cline extemporise simultaneously. Whilst ‘Sky Blue Sky’ isn’t Wilco at their most innovative – it may be Wilco at their most musical, something most critics appear to have missed completely.
The real problem is an uncharacteristic lack of consistency. Where Tweedy once made an entire double album engaging (‘Being There’), he now seems to be struggling to fill a 50 minute single disc. It's made more noticeable by the fact that the album's weaker moments congregate in its second half. ‘Hate it Here’ attempts to repeat the soulful trick of the superior ‘Side with the Seeds’, whilst ‘Leave Me (Where You Found Me)’ is so delicate that it risks becoming bland. 'Walken' is probably the album's most derivative moment.
Similarly, the lyrics veer from the surreal imagery and inventive manipulation of language that characterised the previous albums to rather more banal platitudes that seem limpid and uninspired. Tweedy displays his gifts on ‘Side with the Seeds’ (‘Tires type black/Where the blacktop cracks/Weeds spark through/Dark green enough to be blue/When the mysteries we believe in/Aren’t dreamed enough to be true/Some side with the leaves/Some side with the seeds…’) but he’s really struggling for anything meaningful on ‘Walken’ (I’m walking all by myself/I was talking to myself about you/What am I going to do?’) or the rather benign-sounding ‘On and On and On’ (‘Don’t deny what’s inside’). It’s troubling to say it, but contentment doesn’t seem to come naturally to Tweedy – the songs characterised more by ambiguity and confusion are considerably more successful.
For the most part though, ‘Sky Blue Sky’ is a controlled but nuanced display of group dynamics, interplay and musicality. I also suspect the thrilling essence of many of these songs will come across more clearly in live performance, but we’ll have to wait until next week’s London shows for evidence of this. By synthesising the conventional ingredients of the songwriting art with intuitive and dexterous musicianship, Tweedy has at least avoided repeating himself, again demonstrating that Wilco are a constantly shifting, satisfyingly questing group.