Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Finally, we get to hear what the spat between Wilco and its former label Reprise was about. Their fourth studio album was tightly packaged and sent off to Reprise execs last June for an expected fall release. But the suits at the top didn’t hear a radio worthy single and sent the record back so the desired bells and whistles could be added and commercial success would be ensured.
After being forced to add the radio friendly unit shifter “Can’t Stand It” to their previous effort Summer Teeth, songwriter-guitarist Jeff Tweedy and Co. were tired of being pushed around. So they told Reprise to fuck off and took their wares elsewhere.
If it was a scuffle, Wilco rolled up its collective sleeves and kicked ass. They were able to keep their record intact the way they wanted it, and last week released it as such on the Nonesuch label, which interestingly, is a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner, just like Reprise. Apparently the record was good enough to pay for twice.
Actually, it is. But for better or worse the industry fiasco did have its effect on the band. Just a few weeks after replacing longtime drummer Ken Coomer with the reportedly more talented Glenn Kotche, the band made another change. Jay Bennett, whose genius is largely responsible for the sonic keyboard arrangements, which were introduced on Summer Teeth and have become a staple on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, split and was replaced by Leroy Bach. Bach’s playing seems to rival Bennett’s, but his abilities to compose in the same capacity have yet to be seen. That’s not to say he’s incapable, but rather unproven.
Not to be overlooked is bassist John Stirratt, who has been there from the beginning with Tweedy. His contributions on Foxtrot are as intricate as ever and the harmonies he shares with Tweedy as the band’s primary backing vocalist are invaluable.
The album itself is equal parts pop, experimental, and psychedelic. The slide guitars, pedal steels, and banjos from the A.M. era have been replaced with beautiful piano arrangements and whirling synthesizers that combine with Tweedy’s haunting voice to make for a music that is ethereal yet very accessible. And Tweedy triumphs as a songwriter in being able to sell that juxtaposition, as he combines the songs about love and despair that he’s known for, with parables and metaphors that conjure up multiple images to make for very abstract interpretations.
It may be a disservice to break the album down song by song, as its existence as a single entity is what makes it one of the greatest rock albums in recent memory. Still, the opening track, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” is a deliberate, drugged-out, tale of despair that has Tweedy falling apart in the face of commitment. Its length of over six minutes harks back to Being There’s “Misunderstood” or “Sunken Treasure.” It is a subject that is revisited later on the record on “I’m The Man Who Loves You,” presumably after Tweedy has sobered up.
“Kamera,” “War on War” and “Heavy Metal Drummer” are all, at their purest form, simple pop tunes that actually do seem radio worthy.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot can justly be called one of the great rock albums of all time, as it breaks down barriers in the way Led Zeppelin’s IV or The Beatles’ White Album did. We’re all richer for hearing album the way it was intended to be heard. It was certainly well worth the wait.