Schmilco: First Thoughts

Wilco is my favorite band and it is partially because they’ve always been able to come up with moments that sound like nothing I’ve ever heard before.  Those moments when a song starts and you immediately feel like you’re in a new world.  Whether it is the scratchy guitar freak out of “EKG” or the oh-my-God-they-invented-a-new-style-of-music of “Misunderstood” “I am trying to break your heart” or “Via Chicago” those are the curveballs that blow your mind.  It’s so exciting the first time you hear them, because it is a completely new experience.  When “Art of Almost” kicked off 2011’s The Whole Love, I fell out of my chair and my eardrums exploded.  Here was Wilco taking the techno-influenced sound of modern music and turning it on its head, then smashing it into a wall.  It was jaw dropping.

There’s not really a moment like that on Schmilco.  The closest the record comes is probably “Common Sense” a staccato, minor key shaped acoustic rock song that threatens to fall apart at any moment.  Most of the record is filled with unplugged, breezy songs about nostalgia, hope, fear, anxiety, loss, and love (songs like “If I ever was a child” “Someone to lose” or “Happiness”).  Every song is enjoyable and Wilco is still able to conjure up moments of brilliance: the box drum sound on “Quarters”, the fuzzy bass on “Locator”, and those beautiful moments when songs sound like they’re about to fall into a mess of noise and then quickly pull themselves out of the tailspin.  The songs feel loose and fun, not overproduced or fussed over.  It is the sound of a band, in a room, comfortable with each other.  It’s a record of small moments, quick weird sounds in the midst of simple melodies.  It’s like listening to one long exhale: both comforting and cathartic, but not necessarily new or exciting.  It’s pretty telling that the worst thing I can say about Schmilco is “All these songs are just good, and don’t redefine what I think about music”.

This is Wilco’s 10th album, which is amazing for any band not named Guided by Voices (for whom that’s basically a 2 year stretch).  The band has gotten older, so it’s natural that they’ve calmed down and retreated to familiar territory.  What is remarkable is that they’re able to do that without sounding tired and lazy.  The song that really jumps out to me here is “Normal American Kids”.  A plucky, simple song about feeling like a weirdo.  And as anyone who has watched old Uncle Tupelo concerts on Youtube (which is basically just me) knows, that’s exactly what Jeff Tweedy was.  This is some of Tweedy’s best lyric writing.  Evocative and expository, while also being strange.  It’s also short (under 3 minutes) and doesn’t feel over-worked or preachy.  It’s confessional, but not annoyingly so.

There’s a lyrical thread running through this record about death.  Not in a “we’re all doomed” sort of way, but in a gratitude for being alive sort of way.  This is natural, Tweedy’s wife was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and it has absolutely affected his life in a profound way.  I still miss those sonic adventures though.  There isn’t a jaw dropping moment on Schmilco, but these guys have been doing this since 1994.  No band has less to prove than Wilco.  And if the only thing they can do is give us great songs, what more can we ask for?

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