Release Date: Sep 9, 2016
Record label: Anti-
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Experimental Rock
We’ve all had friends and family members post inspirational memes on social media. Maybe you’ve even done it yourself. And while the act is, for the most part, harmless, it can also mask some of the bleaker emotions and attitudes that come with it. In other words, someone who posts something like “I am too positive to be doubtful” should probably switch those adjectives around.
Last year’s album Star Wars was a grungy, scuzzy road trip around Americana. On Wilco’s 10th album, the group’s enthusiasm is packed away in the boot along with the musty blankets and empty water bottles. If its title didn’t give the game away, here lies irony and disillusionment; a slow, mellow exploration of the middle ground between introverted and cantankerous.
If most bands were to announce that their 10th album, 21 years into their career, will be a largely acoustic affair, it would cause all sorts of alarm bells to ring. Luckily Wilco aren’t most bands. This is no bongos-and-toasted-marshmallows-round-the-campfire collection of easy going jams, rather it’s a bunch of quietly wigged-out, tightly-knotted and hook-ridden complex songs that represent another peak for songwriter (and this time co-producer) Jeff Tweedy and co.
Ever since 2002’s landmark Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco have been expertly treading a fine line between experimentation and accessibility. Coming so soon after the envelope-pushing, fuzzed-up glam stylings of last year’s Star Wars, their 10th album is surprisingly straightforward, its 12 songs concise, uncomplicated, largely acoustic affairs. However, listen more carefully to Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics and there’s a bitterness that’s at odds with the gentle instrumentation.
Over their two-decades-plus run as one of America's most consistently rewarding bands, Wilco have rarely sounded as hushed, as restrained, as relaxed as they do on their tenth studio album. But don't let that fool you — this is as challenging a record as the Chicago sextet have ever released. After the boisterous garage alt-rock of last year's Star Wars, with Schmilco — a nod, perhaps, to Harry Nilsson's 1971 masterpiece Nilsson Schmilsson — Wilco have offered up a progressive folk curve ball: an album of alienated campfire jams.
Wilco's Jeff Tweedy has always been good at evoking his duplicitous feelings to shade his characters with contrapuntal depth; think of the woman trapped in his longings for, and resentments toward, her on Summerteeth's “She's a Jar. ” With Schmilco, however, he goes further and actually confronts his own contradictions. On “Normal American Kids,” he describes how he used to “hate normal American kids” because he was “afraid” of them.
It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when Wilco was regarded with great seriousness as the American answer to Radiohead. The group did everything an arty, serious band was supposed to do: feuded with label execs who refused to release Wilco’s avant-leaning masterpiece, hired Jim O’Rourke, devoted 12 minutes of album time to a migraine-inspired drone. That feels distant now.
Following hot on the heels of last year's Beyoncé and Radiohead style surprise release Star Wars is this oddly-named follow-up, perhaps a direct nod to Harry Nilsson's similarly titled Nilsson Schmilsson. On the surface, the two releases are quite similar. Both are short in length (under 40 minutes) and quite sparse in production style, almost going back to the style of 1996's Being There on songs like "Nope" even if most of the other songs have much more in common with their 21st century output compositionally.
For years, music critics have lazily referred to Wilco as “America’s Radiohead”, and while vague sonic comparisons can be made between the two, the similarities are mostly in general approach and philosophy. Both bands started out with straightforward leaps into popular genres (Wilco: alt-country, Radiohead: Britpop) before eventually freeing themselves from the shackles of formats by just doing what they felt sounded interesting, inspiring and adventurous. Radiohead officially broke free with OK Computer in 1997, while Wilco battled the music business in the early aughts with the gorgeous, experimental-yet-tuneful Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, telling the suits at Warner Brothers subsidiary Reprise Records to take it or leave it.
A few years ago, Jeff Tweedy sang a simple song called “Low Key,” accompanied by his son, on an album he named after his wife and released on his own label. It would be hard to invent a more defining moment for modern-day Wilco. As a frontman, Tweedy’s interests have grown closer to home, his music has become more subtle, and his band has grown more comfortable.
Wilco's 11th album, 2015's Star Wars, was a playful and angular set of noisy pop and pop-friendly noise, and it seemed fitting that it literally appeared out of nowhere, with the band sending it out as a free download without any advance warning one July afternoon. Little more than a year later, Wilco has released a follow-up, Schmilco, and in many respects this album is the flip side to Star Wars. Schmilco feels every bit as spontaneous as Star Wars (and much of the material was recorded during the same sessions), but where the earlier album seemed full of the joy of making music, this one is somber and low-key, a set of navel-gazing music even as the tunes confirm that Jeff Tweedy's way with a melody hasn't failed him.
On "Normal American Kids," the opener of Wilco's 10th studio LP, Jeff Tweedy delivers maybe his most straightforward lyrics ever. Over coffee-house strums and muted electric-guitar lines that swirl like an old movie flashback, the singer recalls being a teenage stoner with a chip on his shoulder, getting high "behind the garden shed" and "under the sheets in my bedroom," loathing the "normal" kids – but also fearing them and maybe, secretly, envying them. Misfits of all ages should relate, and the reflective sentiment brands a deceptively pastoral Wilco record, their most folk-rockingly introspective since 2007's Sky Blue Sky.
Last year, Wilco released their ninth album ‘Star Wars’ as a surprise free download. It came as a shock, especially from a band who had stuck to routine impeccably for their two decades in existence, and with a fanbase that largely wouldn’t have anticipated such a move. Only a year later, and the band are back with another LP, brilliantly titled ‘Schmilco’.
This might well be an apocryphal memory on my part, because I can’t find the recording of it anywhere, but some years back, at a Wilco show, Jeff Tweedy received a marriage proposal from a member of the audience. After pointing out that he has been married with a family for several years now, the notoriously wry frontman added something along the lines of: 'You wouldn’t want to be married to me anyway. I just sit around in my pants, farting and playing guitar' (hey, my hero is just like me after all!).
Death, taxes, Schmilco. The latest album from Jeff Tweedy is certain to scratch the itch of midlife. The band, much like many of its fans, seems to have settled into the familial and familiar. It’s harder to find excitement at a brash, young band playing as loud as possible in the hopes of shocking an audience awake on a Tuesday night.
Do you prefer your Wilco wild, wooly, and electric, or soft-spoken and contemplative? The band—perhaps getting a little loopy in its advancing years—has made choosing one side of its personality or the other easy in the last 18 months, first knocking out the noisy, chugging Star Wars and now the downcast, simple Schmilco. Maybe it’s possible to love both equally, but it almost feels like they’re daring people to choose sides: Are you Team Star Wars or Team Schmilco? (Secondary question: Which album title did Wilco spend less time thinking about? Both feel like permission to not take the band too seriously. ) The two albums were actually written and recorded around the same time, though they were consciously divided, in utero, by singer and chief songwriter Jeff Tweedy.
Wilco have just released a new album, whose title and cover — in combination to the preceding album covers and titles of Star Wars and Wilco (The Album) — continue their tradition of unpretentious and unassuming music. So what, you ask, because they haven’t made a good album since — take your pick: 2004, 2007, 2011 (my personal opinion on The Whole Love is that it was nowhere near the return to art-rock form it was made out to be beyond the bookending long-form tracks, especially the Krautrock opener). So what, you ask, because yesteryear’s Star Wars was their most lightweight record ever.
There's a point on Schmilco when singer, songwriter and guitarist Jeff Tweedy says, "So sad that happiness depends on who you blame." The song, Happiness, is among the darkest on a pretty stern, introspective album by a band that has been joking around a lot lately. Recent records have self-aware names like Wilco (The Album) and last year's Star Wars, and a good chunk of their output and promo appearances have had quality doses of silliness. Schmilco is also sly and great, but superficially it feels like complex, mid-life personal stocktaking.
Cult acts - which Chicago’s art-rock institution Wilco undoubtedly are despite the band’s relatively high profile - are a peculiar thing. Whereas die-hard devotees find ample evidence of genius on even their less distinguished offerings, less favourably biased listeners might struggle to see what the fuss is all about.Schmilco (Wilco Schmilco, get it?) is a case in point. Although never less than beguiling, Wilco's tenth studio album is initially such a slippery, withdrawn and introspective beast that it threatens to slither out of sight before establishing full contact with your ears.
After a few years devoted to side projects, Wilco re-emerged last year with "Star Wars," a fancifully titled surprise album that sounded scruffier, rougher and more off-handed than anything the Chicago sextet had done in a decade. Now "Schmilco" (dBpm Records) arrives, a product of the same recording sessions that produced "Star Wars" but a much different album. Though it's ostensibly quieter and less jarring than its predecessor, it presents its own radical take on the song-based, folk and country-tinged side of the band.