Where to go once you’ve gone off the deep end, and won a Grammy for it? For Wilco, the answer was a measured but brilliant retreat. Unlike its 2004 predecessor A Ghost Is Born, the band’s 2007 album Sky Blue Sky contained no 10-to-15-minute tracks, no feedback indulgences, no high-minded concepts. Instead, there is beauty. Even the album’s longest track, the six-minute “Impossible Germany,” is gorgeous; its guitar sounds trade in the previous album’s Sonic Youth template for something closer to Steely Dan. Much of the shift is due to the continued evolution of the Wilco lineup: After the departure of Leroy Bach, leader Jeff Tweedy added guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, the latter from bassist John Stirratt’s folk-pop side-project the Autumn Defense. Sansone and Stirratt likely had something to do with the kinder, gentler sound of tracks such as the warm, welcoming opener “Either Way” and the contemplative “Leave Me.” Cline, known for jazz-tinged excursions on his own albums and other projects, helps the band keep a sharp edge on several tunes, serving up skronky rhythmic fills on the disjointed “Shake It Off” and barbed leads on “Hate It Here.” Tweedy, meanwhile, reaches a new level as a singer; his voice sounds more mellifluous and effortless than ever, especially on the album’s breezy title track. Is this the sound of Wilco mellowing as they ease into middle age? If so, the musical result becomes them.
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