This review originally appeared in Issue #1 of Paste Magazine in the summer of 2002, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.
By now, you’ve surely read the stories of this album’s long and tortured trek—of band turnovers and how AOL Time Warner ultimately paid for this album twice. You may have downloaded tracks or streamed them from Wilco’s site, months before its release. You may have even purchased Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, gave it a listen, and filed it in your CD rack, wondering what all the fuss was about.
With the prolonged lead-up to its release and the kind of story that journalists love, it begs the question of whether all the praise is more the result of hype and short-lived euphoria than of careful consideration. Despite my long-standing appreciation of Jeff Tweedy’s work, I approached YHF with caution, and my initial listen didn’t allay my fear that it wouldn’t quite live up to its billing. It was clearly a good album, but it didn’t grab me. Initially. Having given it more time to get under my skin, I now contend that Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a momentous artistic achievement that would be nearly impossible to oversell.
Not unlike some of R.E.M.’s finest work, YHF reveals itself more with each successive listen. It insinuates itself into your subconscious. You find yourself singing melodies you hadn’t really noticed. You hear a sonic detail for the first time. You scramble for the lyric sheet as a new connection or potential meaning reveals itself. The album is enjoyable from the first listen; it’s gripping and addictive soon thereafter.
Tweedy has certainly shown flashes of brilliance before—from his work in Uncle Tupelo to Wilco’s previous three releases to the Mermaid Ave. contributions. Despite those flashes, I’ve continually underestimated his ability to deliver (until now) because, for all his brilliance, he has undercut his work with an over-reliance on the cliché and a knack for frat-house triviality (musical and lyrical). Perhaps he suffered most in my estimation because of the inevitable and unfortunate comparison with former UT bandmate, Jay Farrar. I’ve always assumed that Tweedy would settle into being a latter-day McCartney to Farrar’s Lennon. Each subsequent Wilco album tempered that opinion, as Tweedy continued to experiment and Farrar remained on more-or-less familiar (but sublime) territory. Indeed, I should have abandoned my bias after the evolutionary combo of Being There and Summer Teeth. Well, I am biased no longer.
Almost completely gone from YHF are those lyrical and musical clichés, the reliance on the top-of-mind songwriting tools. There’s even the occasional Farrar-esque sound-over-meaning obliqueness (“take off your band aid cuz I don’t believe in touchdowns”). To be sure, there are familiar phrases, melodies, and riffs aplenty. But this time, he’s mixed them up, integrated them, and inhabited them. He’s earned them. It’s evident from the final product that he, his bandmates, and the production team (especially Jim O’Rourke) have painstakingly constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed these songs to create a complete and deliberate composition. The lavish care bestowed in making this album is obvious from the first note to the last.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot takes its name from the phonetic alphabet used in shortwave radio. In fact, YHF is the callsign of one of the high-traffic stations used by Isreal’s Mossad intelligence agency, and its speech-synthesized identification is echoed hypnotically over the end of “Poor places” (presumably sampled from The CONET Project). The static that stems from such transmissions is used as a sonic and lyrical metaphor throughout the album.
The static, sonic bleeding, and dissonance that punctuates these songs has defined many of the descriptions of its sound. While the Kid A-era Radiohead and Captain Beefheart references are there, Wilco has incorporated many styles. There’s pop, roots rock, R&B, disco, rock, prog-rock, electronica, krautrock, etc. You can hear echoes of the Byrds, the Stones, and the Beatles wrapped in Brian Wilson intricacies; that won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Summer Teeth. However, listen hard enough, and you just might hear Steely Dan, the Eagles, King Crimson, and Traffic. These aren’t on-the-sleeve references; they are tightly integrated and well earned. YHF is a layered, multifaceted masterpiece of baroque-pop/rock. This will go down as Wilco’s Revolver and their Sgt. Pepper.
For me, it’s Tweedy’s growth as a lyrists that’s most arresting. YHF is one of the most affecting works of postmodern, existential spiritual longing that I’ve heard. Extending the short-wave radio metaphor, he examines the universal struggle to communicate—with friends, lovers, the world, and, mostly, ourselves. Tweedy alternates subtle and startling twists of phrase to paint his pictures. Intense longing, wistful nostalgia, moments of pure joy and utter despair—they’re all beautifully presented here.
And the lyrics and themes fold back on each other just as the sounds do. Like a director and cinematographer weaving together a film with subtle visual and verbal repetitions and contrasts, Tweedy and company tie different songs together with recurring words and musical phrases. War, lies, truth, death, distance, beauty, cigarettes, echoes, smoking—common words that are sprinkled throughout just as the static is. We even hear the chorus to “I’m the man who loves you” at the end of the leadoff track, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
While there is a great deal of yearning and heartache, this is not to say YHF leaves you wanting to stick your head in an oven or forces you to stay home from work to ponder life’s great mysteries. Word choice and phrasing combine with melody and interesting arrangements to let your conscious focus wherever you dictate. It is a demanding album, but it’s got enough to offer to meet your moods where they are.
But more than that—it’s actually a redemptive album. I have a vivid memory of hearing T Bone Burnett explain at a show at Shuba’s how his apocalyptic “It’s Not Too Late” is optimistic: the hope is in the recognition. Sometimes it’s buoying to hear the affirmation that “no, it’s not ok”. It’s affirming to see a romantic heart struggle to free itself from its inability to communicate, to witness the wistful remembrance of youthful innocence, and to have all of that rewarded with the simple hope imbedded in “Reservations.” This is a full package of challenging and affirming art – beautiful, haunting, redemptive.
It would be silly and irresponsible hyperbole to call this the album of the decade, but that does accurately express my passion for this album. It’s already clear that it is an historic album that will influence pop music for years to come. If Wilco continues to make these types of quantum leaps forward, we’ll have to invent another category of music for Tweedy. Again.
Listen to Paste Sampler #1 featuring Wilco’s ‘War on War’ on Spotify.