Music

On Its Timely New Album, Wilco Reclaims “Alt-Country”

The scathing Cruel Country wrestles with a genre—and a nation—that Jeff Tweedy can’t help but love.

A man with medium-long gray hair and black glasses plays a guitar and sings into a microphone.
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy performs in Austin, Texas, in October. Erika Goldring/WireImage

The Onion, the venerable and sometimes still scathing satirical website, has a paragraph-long story it reuses whenever there’s a mass shooting in America. Its headline reads, “ ‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” This week, after the lone-gunman rampage at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and the Buffalo supermarket shootings before that, the Onion not only ran the story again, but repeated it over and over across its whole front page. Aside from tweaks to the numbers of casualties, only the dateline changes: Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Boulder, Atlanta, San Jose, Dayton, El Paso, Virginia Beach, Thousand Oaks, Bakersfield, San Bernardino …

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These blood-red drop pins crisscross the map of a Cruel Country, as it’s called in the title of the new album by Wilco, the Chicago-based band that shows here that, going on three decades in action, it too can still be scathing. “I love my country/ Stupid and cruel,” creaks the group’s singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy on the title track—“Red/ White/ And blue.” He’s tingeing each of those hues with double meanings, naturally. And for Wilco, “country” too has a second sense here: It also refers to country music, the style to which the band was linked in its early career (before most of the current sextet joined up, in fact)—a sound from which it has deliberately distanced itself since about the turn of the century, and to which, with this record, it is now making a pointed return.

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For most of the 21st century, Wilco has been known for complexly arranged art rock, which some listeners like me would say has had a tendency to pall with time into expertly played but arid “dad rock.” The stylistic shift here, Tweedy has said, came partly out of the band wanting to play some more straight-ahead songs live in one room together, after being forced apart by the pandemic. For the bulk of Cruel Country’s overlong 21-track span, their 12th studio album benefits from the jolt of that liveness. And although this album’s version of country music runs through a giant sounds-like-Wilco filter, it still gains pertinence from its back-to-basics conceit. For Tweedy, that’s a matter tightly bound up in his personal history.

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As the bandleader wrote in a short essay that was paired with the album’s announcement to press, “More than any other genre, country music, to me, a white kid from middle-class middle America, has always been the ideal place to comment on what most troubles my mind—which for more than a little while now has been the country where I was born, these United States. And because it is the country I love, and because it’s country music that I love, I feel a responsibility to investigate their mirrored problematic natures.”

Tweedy has a solid point there. People have been pushing the Nashville country establishment hard in recent years to reckon with its America-mirroring racism and sexism. This week in particular, one can’t help recalling that after the event that put Las Vegas on that Onion roster—a massacre at a 2017 mainstream outdoor country festival that left record numbers of dead—few country figures spoke out forcefully, with rare exceptions, lest they muss the hair of the segment of the genre’s paying demographic that is aligned with the stupid cruelty of the NRA and the GOP.

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Still, even at its twangiest, Wilco has never had much to do with that side of country. Aside from being white dudes, all it shares with most of the current Nashville mainstream is an attachment to the icons of the music’s more distant past. What Tweedy and company more often have been roped into is what the industry now calls “Americana,” an umbrella term for artists based in “roots” music from country to blues to bluegrass to Cajun to vintage R&B to folk rock or what have you—a term cooked up in the late 1990s to promote a set of sounds seldom sanctioned on commercial radio. Or, as the joke in Nashville goes, “country that votes Democrat.”

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Americana yearns to be broadly inclusive, but its vague parameters tend to project a musical liberalism that defaults to white and polite with a side of genteel multiculturalism—“genericana,” as one of the field’s standard-bearers, country-rock songwriter Jason Isbell, once quipped. On that score, Americana advocates kinda can’t win: Well-meaning striving for more diversity is haunted by suspicions of bland tokenism. The expansive blues-and-beyond artist Adia Victoria wrote some years ago that, however ardently Americana courted her, she didn’t want to assimilate into its “obsession with representing ‘true’ ‘authentic’ American roots music.” That lens, she felt, implies cozy presumptions about America’s heritage that downplay its violent exclusions. Fairly or not, the Americana camp didn’t help perceptions by choosing a term imbued with the musty auction odor of colonial knick-knacks and plantation collectibles. (Tweedy himself, by the way, made a pledge to pay reparations for his cultural debt to Black music by giving 5 percent of his songwriting revenue in perpetuity to groups that work for racial justice, and challenged the rest of the music industry to do the same.)

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“Americana” is only the latest awkward effort to encompass all the strains of U.S. music that synthesize rural musical traditions with current takes on modernity, from 1930s Western swing to 1950s rockabilly and electric blues to 1960s folk rock to 1970s country rock through 1980s roots rock and cowpunk and (in Nashville) neotraditional country, and so forth. Tweedy entered that ledger in the late 1980s as one of the two key figures in the Southern Illinois band Uncle Tupelo, which became the flagship band of “alternative country.” The style carried on through the 1990s, even after the group’s breakup, as a burgeoning and ever-expanding subgenre, often shortened to “alt-country.”

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Initially, the “alternative” there came directly from “alternative rock.” Like many of the acts that got the tag, Tupelo’s primary ingredients were post-punk (Minutemen, the Replacements) and country folk (the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard). Sometimes in alt-country that translated into educated city kids doing “hickface” hillbilly drag, putting on phony accents, and generally doing the kind of class slumming to which twentysomething well-off bohemians seem perennially prone. But that wasn’t the case with Uncle Tupelo, which with its two young Midwestern musical lightning rods, Tweedy and Jay Farrar, found multiple ways to make the combination speak plainly to the post-industrial economic pessimism and social anomie of their generation. Their influence was such that when a magazine for the style came along, it was inevitably named after a Tupelo album, No Depression. Its subtitle declared that it covered “alternative country, whatever that is.”

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By the end of the ’90s, though, with Wilco thriving in its own right after still-twangy albums like A.M. and Being There, Tweedy must have felt artistically hemmed in by those expectations. No longer needing Tupelo’s legacy to prop him up, he could shed the baggage of his notoriously ugly split with Farrar, who’d formed his own acclaimed post-Tupelo band, Son Volt (which also persists, less prominent but more consistently “alt” than Wilco, today). Alt-country and the “authenticity” brawls that dogged it were seeming played out and corny—though no one yet could imagine how much hokey-pokier the lineage would get with the 2010s “hey-ho” hooting of miscellaneous carpetbagging Mumfords and Lumineers. Wilco backed out of the barn with 1999’s Summerteeth and shot into orbit with 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album the group’s label rejected for being too experimental, which helped make it an indie-rock cause célèbre once they found it another home, and endowed Wilco with a new reputation, less tethered to rootsiness.

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But now Tweedy is at an age, 54, when many artists are inclined to reflect on their own pasts. He published a memoir in 2018, Lets Go (So We Can Get Back), early Wilco albums have gotten the deluxe reissue treatment, and a brief tour earlier this year commemorated Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s 20th anniversary. Tweedy has nothing to lose by revisiting his alt-country origins. And though he doesn’t quite acknowledge it in his essay, the point he makes there about the twinned meanings of “country” actually retraces what Uncle Tupelo and other alt-country denizens were up to all along. While that subgenre was even narrower, demographically and musically, than Americana today, its early specificity made it a kind of coherent collective project.

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Alt-country subjected the corrupt American nostalgia of the 1980s and 1990s, which had been instrumentalized under Reagan and Bush, to a radical rewrite. These young musicians would dig into the most stereotypically white American sounds in order to question what it meant to be white Americans. Might this rural and working-class material that was still often scorned as abject “white trash” be reimagined (and, yes, appropriated) as a tone in their own throats, and perhaps even reclaimed as cool? From the beginning, then, “alternative country” worked as a metaphor, voicing an inchoate wish for another kind of nation. As historiography, it was all deeply suspect, but creatively it was a well-tensed springboard. After Uncle Tupelo, the concept albums Southern Rock Opera and The Dirty South marked Atlanta’s rowdy Drive-By Truckers as perhaps the most articulately self-aware of the bunch when it came to such genre metanarratives. (They too are still at it, with records like 2016’s hyperpoliticized American Band, and another, Welcome 2 Club XIII, due next week.) But the general vibe reverberated.

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With Cruel Country, Wilco now exhumes that misplaced foundational alt-country impulse for a new era, particularly in the album’s initial tracks, its most baldly sociopolitical. “Dangerous dreams have been detected/ Streaming over the Southern border,” begins the first, “I Am My Mother,” delivered with a demi-Texan drawl that makes Tweedy sound practically like one of the Flatlanders. “Cruel Country” then lays out the album’s thesis statement, followed by the easy-rolling “Hints,” which seems to look back with queasy wistfulness to a time of greater political naïveté, before it became apparent that “There is no middle when the other side/ Would rather kill than compromise.” “Ambulance” delivers a hushed but jaunty acoustic opiate-addiction fantasia of a literally sick America, and the creepy and cryptic “The Empty Condor” conjures a menacing landscape in which “Peaches disagree/ Rotting beneath the leaves,” as if they lie in the long shadow of the lynching trees described in “Strange Fruit.”

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One transformation from 30 years ago is that Tweedy is now ready to take advantage of trad country’s greater suitability to mature adults than to greenhorns. Cruel Country is an unflinchingly middle-aged record. The very song title “Darkness Is Cheap” finds its architect swearing off the prime aesthetic strategy of his Gen X youth. The album is far more fretful than preaching, preoccupied with mortality, sometimes brushing up against a hesitant spirituality. Many of Tweedy’s lyrics here may be his most compactly subtle and ambiguous—“Country Song Upside-Down” is almost as quizzical as a Wallace Stevens poem. Political anxiety becomes inseparable from interpersonal insecurities, and moral confusions and complicities abound.

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In “All Across the World,” over gliding streams of steel guitar, Tweedy confesses he probably couldn’t cope with “what other people go through” outside America, either: “I’m sorry I’m glad/ I’m where I am … What’s a song going to do?” Straight off the top of “Hearts Hard to Find,” which with its enticing lope and melancholy chattiness vividly calls up early Wilco, Tweedy admits, “I don’t mind/ When certain people die … I could lie and say/ It makes me sad/ There’s something wrong with me/ Maybe I’m just bad.”

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One of Wilco’s nagging weaknesses is that Tweedy can be an indifferent melodist. For every “Tired of Taking It Out on You” that seems like a sure crowd-pleaser (especially for anybody who endured involuntary intimate confinement with a partner through the pandemic), there are tunes like “Please Be Wrong,” in which notes linger and wander with barely any discernible direction. The worst of the record’s longueurs is “Many Worlds,” which—after a promising piano intro alluding sidelong to “Over the Rainbow”—meanders through banal thoughts about looking at the stars. It then embarks on one of latter-day Wilco’s jam-band-ish excursions, but without Nels Cline’s usual dissonant guitar cartwheels or much else of interest adding to—or rather subtracting from—its nearly eight forgettable minutes. Dispense with it, along with the ultra-dull dad-mope of penultimate track “Sad Kind of Way” and before it “Mystery Binds,” an exercise in slinky country noir that never finds a center of gravity, and you’d tighten the sprawl by nearly a quarter hour.

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That would free up attention span for the more rewardingly challenging songs, such as “Bird Without a Tail/Base of My Skull.” It emulates the structure of a traditional folk “list” song such as “Hush Little Baby (Mockingbird)” to imply a political allegory about unintended consequences, about poison flowing down from the top. It’s the album’s second-longest track, but here the Grateful Dead–like country-rock jam interlude musically mimics the cyclical arc of the narrative and also clears space to meditate on the riddling lyrical imagery. The other cleverly folk-inspired track is “A Lifetime to Find.” It’s a contemporary twist on “O Death” (most likely familiar from the late bluegrass great Ralph Stanley’s renditions) and other ballads in the centurieslong lineage in which protagonists are found in conversation with Death, arriving untimely early to claim their souls. Compared with the moral reproach and body horror of most Christian versions, Tweedy’s is laidback and upbeat. The Reaper at one point rebuts an imploring “O Death” with “O Jeff/ Don’t obsess.”

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Cruel Country reaches its own end with “The Plains.” It circles back to the state-of-the-union theme, feeling like at once a throwback and a sequel to a strummy, slice-of-life Uncle Tupelo song like No Depression’s “Screen Door.” There, in 1990, Tweedy sang of Midwesterners, “Down here, where we’re at/ Everyone is equally poor/ Down here, we don’t care/ We don’t care what happens outside the screen door.” Thirty-two years later, he has his “Plains” character, a Fox News viewer or maybe Tweedy in a bleak moment, murmuring, over background wind turning to static, “From what I see on my TV/ There isn’t any point in being free/ When there’s nowhere else/ You’d rather be.”

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Worse yet, he sings, “It’s hard to watch nothing change/ It’s impossible how slowly things fade.” The line calls to mind the statement often attributed to James Baldwin that the cruelest horror of his cruel country was “that America changes all the time without ever changing at all.” Nostalgia can be a pernicious social and personal force. But despite the flack that retro-styled artworks often get, the same isn’t true about every act of looking back. Sometimes you need to reconsider where you came from. And sometimes you need to make sure you aren’t still standing in place, endlessly repeating the same event, because you’d rather kill than compromise.

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