Wilco’s newest studio album, Sky Blue Sky, sounds a lot like the final leg of a 12-step rehab program: it’s about acceptance. Wilco, unlike Radiohead, never seemed to revel in confounding their audience with conceptual and sonic experimentation, but the band was constantly evolving and none of their five studio albums sound alike. Sky Blue Sky is no exception.
There is none of the distortion or ebullience of Being There, none of the computer enigmas that characterize Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and none of the abstractions that unite in A Ghost is Born. These masks have fallen away and Jeff Tweedy appears to be ready to face himself for the first time. The resulting album is organic and careful wrought; it is also rather boring.
Wilco’s musical pedigree is more accessible than usual on this album. There’s the Dylanesque folk guitar opening of “Either Way,” the ubiquitous Hammond Organ that sounds like it might have been literally stolen from The Band’s New York estate Big Pink, even a White Album-era Beatles’ guitar lick.
But a more relevant comparison would be to another country-influenced rock band that, like Wilco, followed a series of erratic and experimental studio albums with a guitar driven mediation based on experience—the Grateful Dead. However, unlike Wilco, The Dead’s return to simplicity was marked with songs that endured. Sky Blue Sky can be compared to American Beauty but it cannot contend; the songs simply aren’t strong enough.
All atavism aside, Sky Blue Sky is fundamentally a Wilco record, and there are surprises despite the conventional form. My favorite parts of the album are the carefully intertwined guitar breaks that twist inside the songs or more effectively break out as a coda at the end. The guitar effort, the result of close work between Jeff Tweedy and new guitarist Nels Cline, is as compact and effective as anything on Being There, Wilco’s most consistently excellent album.
Lyrically, Jeff Tweedy is making sense of a world filled with contradiction and intricacies. The art inside the album cover mirrors this sentiment. The images are common: birds, trees, the back of a woman’s head. But their pointillist rendering becomes thematically united with the lyrical content of the album; we live in a very complicated world.
In “Shake it off” Tweedy complains, “It certainly starts to spoil my heart. Somewhere there’s a war. Somewhere there’s art.” More specific to Tweedy, the lyrics examine his life as a contradiction, a father, a husband, a rock star, a recovering drug addict.
The album is not all darkness, as the title would imply. On “Side with Seeds,” Tweedy references seeds that represent the promise of new life. The title track, too, is hopeful—the extra adjective offering assurance that even the sky can break brighter, more vivid, more real.
The closing line of the album echoes this optimism. Over a quiet guitar rift and a muted bass line, Tweedy pledges, “You and I will stay together, yeah. You and I will try to make it better.” Is he talking about a woman, or his infamously unstable band lineup?
It doesn’t matter because the try is the important part. It’s a promise he makes to his listeners, and himself, with conviction. MTW