Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in a fishing boat on Lake Michigan
If you’ve ever found Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics inscrutable, consider this: When he was writing “I Might,” the first single off Wilco’s new effort, The Whole Love, the enigmatic frontman started without any words at all. “I would grunt and chant, then listen until they sounded like words. It’s really dis-associated,” he says. (As evidence: “The Magna Carta’s / On a Slim Jim blood / Brutha!”)
On the other hand, Tweedy is heart-wrenchingly direct on “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend),” the album’s sadly lovely 12-minute finale, which describes a man’s relief at the death of his religiously condemnatory father. “Now he’s going to know he was wrong and that there is an only loving God,” Tweedy explains.
In a way, The Whole Love, due out September 27, itself is an act of faith. Wilco’s eighth studio release is coming out on the band’s own newly formed label, dBpm Records—a major departure from its predecessors, which were all on major labels. The group sounds emboldened by the move, embellishing Tweedy’s songs with deft, adventuresome accompaniment that reflects the Chicago sextet’s trust in one another’s abilities.
Wilco’s contract with their previous label, Nonesuch Records, concluded with the release of 2009’s Wilco (The Album), which has sold more than 270,000 U.S. copies to date, a solid performance at a time when illegal file sharing has decimated record sales. However, disappointed with the offers they were receiving and Nonesuch’s lack of engagement, the band members decided to take matters into their own hands. “Over the years, we’ve worked toward being more and more self-sufficient and less dependent on the labels,” Tweedy says, sitting at the kitchen table of the band’s loft recording studio and rehearsal space in the Irving Park neighborhood. “We’re doing the same thing we’ve done for a long time, which is making a record we like and putting it out into the world.
“There may be an added level of pressure on our management, but from our perspective the pressure is really off,” he adds. In fact, not having to share revenues with a label means the band will make more money even if sales for The Whole Love fall short of previous efforts. (Wilco’s sales typically average around 550,000 per album worldwide—with the exception of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which, boosted by a media frenzy over record label woes, reached 890,000.)
Wilco took advantage of an extended break from touring to record The Whole Love on and off over a period of about a year, beginning in the summer of 2010. In a first for the group, all recording was done in their loft, an instrument-crammed space that would make a collector’s mouth water. Guitars stand upright in neat rows and instrument cases are piled to the ceiling. One corner houses a massive soundboard, another a drum kit. In this environment, the group worked out the arrangements for Tweedy’s songs. “Everybody has a part of the process that’s their chance to put their two cents in,” Tweedy says. “What’s unusual is the level of trust that everyone’s going to add something cool.”
That trust has been forged by years of playing and traveling together. Tweedy points out that the current version of the band has been together almost as long as all of the prior incarnations combined: Wilco formed in 1994 and had a revolving-door membership until the present lineup coalesced in 2004. (The 44-year-old frontman and the bassist John Stirratt are the only remaining original members.) “It’s liberating not having to worry about all the things you need to worry about when you’re learning to play together,” Tweedy says. “Everybody was able to play to their strengths and contribute to what we’re making without a lot of baggage.”
For example, keyboard player Mikael Jorgensen suggested the band extend the experimental dance-rock groove of the opening track, “Art of Almost,” which led to Nils Cline’s nearly two and a half minutes of firestorm guitar. (See chart.) Multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, who coproduced The Whole Love with Tweedy, asked if he could add a string arrangement to the country-folk ballad “Black Moon” after the song was seemingly finished, with gorgeous results.
Those songs reflect the breadth of styles that has marked the band’s music since its 1996 sophomore release, Being There. While previous records largely emphasized one genre or another, The Whole Love mixes them together, sometimes within a song. The music ranges across jangle pop (the title track), garage rock (“Standing O”), keyboard-drenched balladry (“Sunloathe”), and even jazz (“Capital City”). “These are all things we’ve carved out that we’re good at,” Tweedy says.
Throughout the record, Wilco sounds assured and relaxed, from the blazing guitar decrescendo at the end of “Born Alone” to the graceful flourishes of “One Sunday Morning.” “It feels fresh to me,” Tweedy says. “It sounds like Wilco.”
Photograph: Chris Strong