Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Wilco

Nonesuch Records, 2002

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/22/2004

On "Radio Cure," the third track from Wilco's celebrated Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, bandleader Jeff Tweedy sings "There is something wrong with me / My mind is filled with silvery stars." Which is about as fine a summary of this album as I could ever come up with -- it's a disc infused with a particularly brilliant and beautiful brand of madness.

In more ways than one, the sound of YHF -- ambient noise, strange textures and atmospherics weaving in and out of songs that shimmer with surreal poetry and compelling melodies -- is the sound of a band breaking free. From its roots as the co-inheritor of the No Depression/alt-country mantle along with fellow Uncle Tupelo refugees Son Volt, Wilco has evolved over the course of 10 years and four albums into singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy's vehicle for interstellar musical exploration. YHF's ripples, squonks and bizarre segues seem almost calculated to generate the eventual result -- the album's rejection by Warner, the band's release from their contract and repurchasing of the masters, and the album's eventual release on indie label Nonesuch.

So what was all the fuss about? Take just one moment for example -- the outlandish transition as the final section of acoustic campfire sing-along "War On War" devolves into an electro-shock chaos crescendo that dips, feedback-and-out, straight into the Steely Dan-esque electric-piano-and-strings intro to "Jesus, etc." It's dazzling, really, both because it's so different, and because it actually works, feeling organic rather than pretentious. It works again and again, in fact, as song after song doesn't end so much as have a nervous breakdown before flowing into the next. The overall effect is kind of like living inside a musical savant's 60-minute spiral into insanity. Disorienting, yet compelling.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Let's not get lost in the forest, though, because there are some fine trees to be examined. "Kamera" finds Tweedy doing his best Lindsey Buckingham, layering harmonies over a steady-building acoustic-and-chunky-electric guitar rhythm. Very tasty. On "I'm The Man Who Loves You," the band sets the wayback machine for the roof of Apple Records circa 1969 and a pastiche of Abbey Road-era Beatles, complete with stabbing, raunchy guitar lines, a careeningly sloppy "arrangement," sweet harmony vocals and -- hey, why not -- horns on the middle section. Naturally, the whole thing train-wrecks at the end.

One of the other intangibles that helps set this album apart is Tweedy's unique vocal delivery. The album opener, "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," begins "I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue / I'm hiding out in the big city blinking / what was I thinking when I let go of you." The words themselves are bizarre enough, but is the narrator angry, mean, depressed, sad, stoned or demented? Tweedy's delivery is so deadpan you can't tell; you can only listen and get caught up in the hypnotic cadence of his words.

One of the prettiest songs here is "Poor Places," which starts out with the sound of a truck backing up and lets the steady beeping turn into the rhythmic marker the song is built around. The surreal poetry of the lyrics carries you through five minutes of discordant longing until the song drifts off and becomes tangled up in an electronic hallucination that leans farther and farther into the swirling sonic abyss as a child's voice repeats "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" in a quiet monotone.

Uh, yeah.

Hidden in the flow-of-semi-consciousness poetry that makes up the lyrics are some particularly fine nuggets; my favorites being these two: "Picking apples for the kings and queens of things I've never seen / Distance has no way of making love understandable." And, "You were right about the stars / Each one is a setting sun." It's no reach at all to find out that Tweedy went into rehab subsequent to this album; there was clearly something tweaking him out in a big way as he put these songs together.

We should all be grateful, though, that the tape was rolling. This is the best album that Pink Floyd and Jackson Browne never made together. It's a disc that the artist called perfectly formed, the label called unreleasably uncommercial, and the critics -- once they got ahold of it -- called stunningly brilliant. They were all right.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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© 2004 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Nonesuch Records, and is used for informational purposes only.