Album Assignments: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

I never took the class on Wilco. Trish has been a fan for ages, seeing them in concert bunches of times and buying every album, so I’ve gotten to hear about Wilco a lot, but never actually listened to a Wilco album all the way through. The closest I’ve come were the Mermaid Avenue records, in which Billy Bragg and Wilco set a bunch of unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics to music. I like those collections a lot, and on a recent re-listen to Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II I found myself really taken with the Wilco songs, so I had the idea to assign Robby a Wilco album, mainly so I could assign myself a Wilco album.

I sought Trish’s advice on which one to choose, and she picked for me: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Based on what little I knew about the band, I guess I was expecting a nice album of vaguely folky rock songs, mostly about relationships.

That is not what I got.

I was not expecting for the first sound I heard to be freaky radio sound effects, tuning in and out. I was not expecting for the first song to completely change its mind, 45 seconds in, about what song it wanted to be — new drumbeat, new instrumentation, new feel. I was not expecting straight-up Dark Side Of The Moon homages. And I was not expecting Jeff Tweedy to start singing lyrics like:

I am an American aquarium drinker
I assassin down the avenue

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is not a nice album of vaguely folky rock songs about relationships. It is so much better than that.

Album cover for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Here’s a recipe for this album. Start with a base of alt-country — Son Volt, Ryan Adams, Tweedy’s old band Uncle Tupelo, that kind of thing. Mix in some roots — Grateful Dead, CSNY, The Band, Buffalo Springfield. Stir until blended, and then apply a thick layer of post-Meddle Pink Floyd and latter-half Beatles (i.e. starting at Strawberry Fields and going all the way down the line.) Drench the entire mixture in wild surrealism — Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, André Breton. Then set it on fire.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot careens unpredictably from the bizarre and unparseable into the achingly heartfelt and back over and over again, so much that they almost begin to switch places. Take “I am trying to break your heart”, which starts out with the lines quoted above, then finishes them with “I’m hidin’ out in the big city blinking / What was I thinking when I let go of you?” There are five more verses just like that. One moment Tweedy is all, “Take off your Band-Aid ’cause I don’t believe in touchdowns,” and then suddenly he’s grieving, “I’d always thought that if I held you tightly / You would always love me like you did back then.” At some point in the song, you start asking yourself which of these thoughts are really the ones that don’t make sense.

Meanwhile, so many crazy things are happening musically, that I don’t even know how to describe. There’s a bunch of reverb on the guitars, and an organ that sounds like it’s practically underwater. Strums jump to the front and fade back again, rained on by tuneless glockenspiel (maybe?) and arpeggios that sound like somebody dragging a pencil along a grand piano’s strings and then looping the sound back on itself. There’s a perfect piano riff, behind which it sounds like a toddler is banging on the ivories. Zithers jump around in the stereo field. The radios hum, blinking in and out, and then over the title line all the background stuff starts to battle each other, all of it sounding dissonant and yet fitting the mood perfectly.

I listened to this album for three days. It feels like I could listen to it for three years and still keep finding new things. It’s that dense, that layered. The comparison that kept leaping to my mind is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and yeah, Wilco lives up to the comparison. The songs themselves, the interstices between the songs, the references back and forth, the endless bold and surprising choices, the sheer variety — it’s a record that leaves you certain that you’ve just heard art, musical creativity at its best.

I don’t mean to give the impression, though, that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is some abstract, pretentious performance art piece. It is powerful and emotional, and the crazy lyrics and audio effects never seem tacked-on. On the contrary, they seem essential. More than anything, this album feels like a journey into an unusual mind. I’m not sure whether that mind belongs to Tweedy, or to his co-writer Jay Bennett, or to some kind of collective gestalt of the band itself — all I know is that I found it a fascinating, compelling place to visit.

Sometimes that mind is melancholy and contemplative, sometimes philosophical. (“You have to learn how to die / if you wanna wanna be alive.”) There are times when it seems scarily unsettled, near the edge or over it (as in the outro for “Ashes of American flags”), and then other times (like “Heavy metal drummer”) when it is as sweetly nostalgic as any Van Morrison song. There are moments where the trip churns into an eddy, as in the dirge-y “Radio cure”, or the occasional instrumental break that wanders off into the woods, but almost immediately something else comes along to captivate — a pang of melody, an arresting image, a sound you’ve never heard before.

It took me a long time to get to Wilco. I think it’ll take me a long time to really learn them. I can’t wait.

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