During their three decade long career, Wilco have experienced and achieved pretty much everything to qualify as Olympian gods of modern rock music. They’ve made at least three records widely canonized as classics, progressively evolved musically, expanded their influences as far ranging as Krautrock and no wave, had stints with substance abuse and expanded the mythological lore associated with the genesis of their iconic 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to a myriad of legends and a documentary film. They’ve recorded country, dad-rock, drone, guitar-pop, minimalism, punk and folk. They were one of the first bands to use the internet to self-release an album. And, they still haven’t released a truly bad record in their career.
They’re a total oddity in the modern canon. And somehow, they’ve now followed one of their top tier albums – the ambient-leanining beauty Ode to Joy – with their weakest record, period.
Cruel Country makes a lot of sense – it’s a loose collection of songs written and recorded during the lockdown, reflecting on the zeitgeist of a deeply divided nation that is struggling with its lack of empathy. As a result, it’s stripped down, incidental and heavy on political message. It also lacks coherence, momentum, emotional gravitas and subtlety. It often feels like Jeff Tweedy worked on a solo record and invited his band members over midway through to lend the compositions some nuance. Yet the outcome all too often feels like first takes, with progression sorely lacking. Take “The Empty Condor”, which feels like the first half of a classic Wilco track which should, after four minutes, take off, explode in an onslaught of guitar improvisation or jazz drumming or studio experimentation – yet here, it just ends. All too many of the 21 songs on the album feel just as unrealized, half-baked and disappointing.
It would be easy to just write this off as the consequence of the band’s extensive dad-rock leanings (as observed on Wilco: The Album), but it’s not that easy. Wilco always managed to stylize their songs in a fashion where there was a good instinct for drama and tension, even when they performed pop. There were always hidden hints of Television, Smashing Pumpkins, The Byrds in those songs, the sense that you witness incredible musicians. On Cruel Country, all too many of the songs feel generic, with no real discernible individuality. They politely force themselves into the background, add maybe a horn or string or piano here or there, but don’t even demand the minor transgression of a solo (an element that made Sky Blue Sky into a classic) or sonic surprise (Schmilco greatly benefitted from this approach and forced individuality on every track). A song like “Tired of Taking it out on You”, with its modest guitars and faint urban country stylings, just feels like a throwaway for a band that has moved on to more exciting shores long ago – and it’s one of the more memorable tracks here.
There are rare exceptions to this rule. “Tonight’s the Day” is one of the more positive tracks: its shimmering piano breaks are a memorable hook, and the song’s melody is intriguing and somewhat mysterious. “Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull” uses a hint of John Lennon’s aesthetics and then conjures Dave Crosby’s unique guitar playing style in its second half, all Appalachian landscapes and Texan summer nights – a classic Wilco track. “The Universe” is touching enough, thanks to a sudden onset of cosmic sounds by its second half, while the eight-minute standout “Many Worlds” delves into a full on Kosmische Musik vibe a la “Ashes of American Flags” (minus the tape loops and noise interludes). But the band has done all of this before, and better. Contrasting that, “Hearts Hard to Find” is a genuinely uplifting and beautiful track, as simple as can be, but fully realized and incredibly touching, with each band member adding elements and fashioning a brilliant pop song.
It’s odd to find a 21 track, 80 minute record that allows for so little to be said about it. At heart, it’s all too modest, too fatigued, too lacking in ambition and attitude. It’s the Wilco album that Wilco haters can point to and exclaim that it justifies their hatred. It makes sense that the band wanted to do a record as unassumingly as possible during the lockdown era, but the outcome is a bunch of songs any other modern Americana band could have recorded, with the brief exception of some bright spots – which are just testament that Wilco still have so much more to say. Had they released this collection track by track, dripping them online right after recording during the lockdown – maybe then their aura could have been retained and it would warrant some nostalgic sympathy for them. But releasing them all in one go as an album marks the band’s first misstep in 30 years.