Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Peter Blackstock

By Peter Blackstock

on 09.23.11 in Reviews

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Turning away from pop convention and toward art-rock experimentation

The Wilco catalogue breaks down fairly cleanly into before-and-after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot segments. Such is the landmark nature of this album, which attained mythical status after it was initially rejected by the band’s label; when it finally saw the light of day a year later, it vaulted to the upper reaches of the charts. The entire process was detailed in the documentary film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, which is also the title of the album’s first track, a seven-minute testament to Wilco’s decisive turn away from pop convention and toward art-rock experimentation. The making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was marked by turmoil — in addition to the label hassles, leader Jeff Tweedy and key bandmate Jay Bennett had a professional meltdown during the sessions (documented in the film), and longtime drummer Ken Coomer was replaced by Glenn Kotche, coveted by Tweedy for his unconventional approach to percussion. The result was an album with a lot more open space than its predecessor, the densely-arranged Summerteeth; the emphasis is less on melody and more on mood. The first few songs suggest a soundscape for a sci-fi film about a bleak futureworld; from that detritus blooms the delicate fiddle solo that frames “Jesus, Etc.,” which can’t help but bring to mind 9/11 when Tweedy sings, “Tall building shake/ Voices escape/ Singing sad, sad songs,” even though the album was recorded a few months before the WTC attacks. That sorrowful sentiment carries over to the next track, “Ashes of American Flags,” before Tweedy delivers the lighthearted and playful “Heavy Metal Drummer” as a sort of antidote to the proceedings. When Tweedy acknowledges on the album’s serene, shimmering final track, “I’ve got reservations/ About so many things/ But not about you,” it feels like a personal reckoning, and a way forward for both the art and the artist.