What’s So Great About Wilco?

How a spineless rock band became known for its nerve.

Roger, Wilco

Great. Along with God, flag, and country, you now have to love the rock band Wilco, or be forced to account for yourself. Wilco isn’t just a band, you see. It’s a symbol, maybe even a movement. “Slowly, improbably, unwillingly,” as Kelefa Sanneh recently put it in the New York Times, “Wilco has become one of those bands that stands for something.” What Wilco stands for is artistic backbone in the face of crass mercenary calculation, and this has made them something of a beacon in the Age of Britney. The story of Wilco’s evolution—from competent pop-rock band to anticommercial rallying cry—goes like this: In 2001, Wilco produced an album its record label found far too eccentric to promote. Undeterred, Jeff Tweedy—the band’s founder, singer, and songwriter—began playing his new music live and streaming it over the Internet for free. In the process, he turned an orphaned album into a pop cause célèbre. Re-signed to a boutique label, Wilco went on to sell 400,000 copies of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. So what’s not to love? Single-minded visionary produces genre-busting album. Home office drones demand a remix and a hooky single. Visionary refuses, only to triumph when his version of the album nearly goes gold. A great story, only it gets the essence of Wilco almost exactly wrong. 

Here I should lay down my own cards. I don’t like Wilco’s music very much. They’re ni carne, ni pesce, as the Italians say. To a listener accustomed to Hootie and the Blowfish, Wilco sounds like the Minutemen—daring, allusive, funky, weird, and yet so right. To a listener accustomed to the Minutemen, Wilco sounds like Hootie and the Blowfish: classic rock for frat boys. All its post-rock filigree aside, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot did nothing to disabuse me of this notion, and neither has Wilco’s new album, A Ghost Is Born. However, a new book, Wilco: Learning How To Die, by the Chicago rock journalist Greg Kot, helps explain why Tweedy’s music strikes some listeners as lacking the very nerve it supposedly displays in such abundance. Though the book is intended as old-fashioned hagiography, it keeps stumbling over one central fact: Wilco isn’t the product of Jeff Tweedy’s unswerving artistic conviction. Wilco is the product of Tweedy’s epic insecurity. Ironically, it’s Tweedy’s peculiarly tractable sense of artistic self that has allowed Wilco to become the band of the moment. 

Tweedy’s first band was Uncle Tupelo, which he formed in high school with classmate Jay Farrar. Farrar was a rock ’n’ roll wunderkind, blessed with a “Who is that?” voice, full of homesickness and box cars and Hank Williams. Tweedy’s singing was—well, how to even describe it? Through the first Uncle Tupelo albums, it was squawky and blessedly infrequent. By Anodyne, the band’s masterpiece, Tweedy had developed into a near-equal partner with Farrar. But his talents were still, by comparison, indistinct. I’ve saturated myself with Tweedy’s music over the past month, and I still can’t describe his singing. Sometimes he sounds like Ray Davies, sometimes like Paul Westerberg; he has hauntingly echoed Leonard Cohen; and on the new album’s best cut, “Hell Is Chrome,” I swear I’m picking up some John Lennon.

Tweedy himself wouldn’t disagree. In Wilco, he agonizes in turn over his singing, his guitar playing, and his songwriting, each of which he finds clumsy and inchoate. As a result, Tweedy has reached out over the years to stronger artistic personalities for ballast. As Kot’s narrative makes clear, every Wilco album reflects Tweedy’s need for a partner, or even guru, to help lend his music its distinctive character. Tweedy has collaborated with Billy Bragg on The Mermaid Avenue projects; with the guitarist Jay Bennett, who shaped the aural contours of the album Summer Teeth; and since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with the Chicago post-rock gurus Jim O’Rourke and Glenn Kotche, who are largely responsible for the Radiohead-style deconstructionist Tweedy has recently become. Early in Wilco’s existence, the role of sound-shaping mentor was played by the record company, which wanted a breakout song to propel sales. The band’s first album, A.M., was remixed by one of Tom Petty’s old producers, as Kot tells us, “to give it a punchier pop feel, the type of mix that a radio programmer wouldn’t dismiss out of hand.” In 1999, Tweedy even repaired to the studio with David Kahne, the head suit in Reprise Records’ A & R department, and a man who helped Sugar Ray and the Bangles manufacture hits. Their mission? To bang out, at the 11th hour, a radio-ready single, complete with melodic chimes and monster guitar hooks, to help sell Summer Teeth.

The aim was to market Wilco as something called “Adult Album Alternative” (or “Triple-A”)—in other words, smart rock for slightly older listeners. To this end, Tweedy was putty in the record company’s hands. He let them tinker with his sound, making it too big and too poppy for college radio, while keeping it too clever and too complex for J. Lo radio. The problem, however, was never really with Wilco’s sound. What Tweedy and his corporate minders couldn’t get through their heads was how much the pop landscape had changed. That magic confluence that once made Beggar’s Banquet, the White Album, Village Green Preservation Society, and The Who Sell Out into commercial and artistic triumphs within a year or so of one another no longer exists. In pop music, albums still triumph commercially, and albums still triumph artistically. But they’re almost never the same albums.

Accordingly, Warner Brothers never knew whether to go big or go small with Wilco; as a result, they created a confusing hybrid instead. This confusion is everywhere echoed in Kot’s narrative. He breathlessly compares Being There, Wilco’s 1996 double album, to Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., and the Clash’s London Calling. Setting aside the basic “Um, hello …” factor at work here, Being There is not a cultural landmark of the same order. No one could argue that Being There “spoke to a generation.” Eight years later, it has not even gone gold. Kot tries to stick to the script—rock auteur faces down the corporate suits—but the details in his book suggest another story, one that’s much more interesting. It’s the story of rock ’n’ roll rebranding itself as a niche product, sold to a smaller and smaller subset of the record-buying public, and the identity crisis this has engendered—at the major labels, among record buyers, and in the sound of the music itself. Some consumers, of course, still need to feel as though the music they buy merits, if not exactly landmark status, some claim to cultural importance. Wilco is the band for such consumers; and to help them along, critics have provided the word “deconstruction.” Deconstruction is now rock-press shorthand for the crumbling of the traditional Intro Verse Chorus Verse Chorus Bridge Solo Verse Chorus song structure. But its real significance has gone unnoticed. Deconstruction is currently doing for Wilco (and Radiohead before it) what it did for literary studies in the ‘70s and ‘80s: providing a sense of pomp and excitement during a period of near-total marginalization.

The best and most original rock musicians of the ‘90s embraced this marginalization by cheerfully casting off all of rock’s old pretense to grandiosity. I’m thinking now of Stephin Merritt, Elliott Smith, Sam Beam, Chan Marshall, and Stuart Murdoch, all of whom hide behind aliases or their fellow band-mates, or record out of their own bedrooms. Each one generally strikes an extremely dignified, vaguely anti-rock star profile. But Tweedy doesn’t know what pose to strike—nice guy or demonic rocker? On one page, Kot paints him as a neurotic wallflower and compliant family man. On the next, he amateurishly baits a diffident British audience, or stages a St. Grottlesex-quality food fight. (My personal favorite is when a couple of girls gone wild flash Tweedy on the freeway. “We thought this was Waylon Jennings’ bus,” the women lament, after everyone has pulled over.) The Wilco story, it turns out, has an unexpected lesson: It’s not “How to reinvent rock ’n’ roll in all its glory.” It’s “What not to make of a diminished thing.”