If the aging kings of modern day indie rock are Pavement, then Wilco is their strongest son, a collective of experimental individuals with a vision of what the kingdom is to become.
Through seven studio albums of ’70s inspired alt-country and cock rock, Wilco became one of the brashest groups of the millennium, all while maintaining an air of being smarter, more talented and more mysterious than your piddling little under-the-radar project. Their work can be deliberately off-putting (see the unbelievably frustrating “Sky Blue Sky,”) but they can get away with it in moments of surreal, yet innately, inspired brilliance, like they did in their best-selling magnum opus, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”
After 2009’s somewhat inspired but deeply flawed “Wilco (The Album),” singer, lead guitarist, frontman and one of the two original members, Jeff Tweedy decided to get back to basics. The group went back to the studio and recorded something that was intentionally a bit of a throwback to the albums that made them great, namely “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost is Born,” and ended up turning out “The Whole Love.”
And it’s arguably their best, most defining work yet.
One of the album’s standout tracks comes the in the first single, “I Might,” which both defines the sound of the new record while bringing back fond memories of albums long past. It’s also Tweedy at his most cryptic, drawing on the Steve Malkmus songwriting method, pulling disparate themes and words together to create a chorus where lines like, “You might, you won’t have to set the kids on fire/It’s all right,” into something both frightening and strangely comforting.
The record predominantly embraces the bouncy blend of surf and indie rock, including a series of very weather focused songs like “Sunloathe,” “Dawned on Me” and “Rising Red Lung,” but Tweedy doesn’t forget where the band came from.
He channels the style of Wilco’s formative group, Uncle Tupelo, to create some classic and stunning alt-country tracks that bring the requisite darkness to the album.
“Black Moon” sets the darkness in motion with his joltingly slow and steady guitar beat, but “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” ends the record on a funeral march, a bleak look at the life of, we have to assume, Tweedy as he slowly tries to find redemption. Lines like “My father said what I had become/No one should be” and “Outside I look lived in/like the bones in a shrine/How will I be forgiven/Oh, I’ll give it time,” create the story of a man at his lowest as he makes an attempt to please everyone around him and finds himself coming up just short.
“The Whole Love” is technically a masterful album, although the themes and questions it brings up are left without any sort of satisfying answers or even attempts to find those answers. It’s a small quibble; Wilco wasn’t setting out to make a concept album but among their other focused works, it stands out. Ultimately, it’s a great casual record with grand ambitions and a continual assertion of the band’s place at the top of the independent rock pyramid.