Release Date: May 15, 2007
Record label: Nonesuch
Genre(s): Indie, Rock, Alt-Country
Jeff Tweedy has had a lot on his shoulders lately: addiction, rehab, and the lofty expectations that come with each Wilco album. It’s no surprise then that he and the band have gone back to basics on Sky Blue Sky, ditching the sonic tinsel of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the minimalism of A Ghost Is Born for the haunting beauty of a slide guitar. His voice is the star, though.
Getting old with grace isn't a trivial matter for men or bands. Jeff Tweedy and Wilco have a new coming of age on Sky Blue Sky, an album that represents midlife without crisis; the family sedan over the sports car; the appreciation of what you have and where you are. Tweedy takes his contentment without complacency and has grown up considerably on Sky Blue Sky, Wilco's sixth proper release (and first to feature Nels Cline, the band's touring guitarist).
In 1999, Wilco willingly abdicated their position as one of the leading acts in the alt-country movement to dive head-first into the challenging waters of experimental pop with their album Summerteeth, and moved even further away from their rootsy origins with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, winning the group a new and enthusiastic audience along the way. So it might amuse a number of the band's earlier fans that in many respects Wilco's sixth studio album, Sky Blue Sky, sounds like the long-awaited follow-up to 1996's Being There -- while it lacks the ramshackle shape-shifting and broad twang of that earlier album, Sky Blue Sky represents a shift back to an organic sound and approach that suggests the influence of Neil Young's Harvest and the more polished avenues of '70s soft rock. Sky Blue Sky also marks Wilco's first studio recordings since Nels Cline and Pat Sansone joined the group, and they certainly make their presence felt -- with Cline, Wilco has its strongest guitarist to date, and while his interplay with Sansone on numbers like "Impossible Germany" and "Walken" lacks the skronky muscle of his more avant-garde work of the past, it's never less than inspired and he works real wonders with Jeff Tweedy's lovely melodies.
So it looks as if, beneath all the static and the krautrock jams, Wilco never wanted to be the American Radiohead after all. In a U-turn that could have been no more decisive if they had smashed their computers with lengths of wood, they've looped back to the hazy soft-rock summers of their youth. Jeff Tweedy opens his first album since kicking painkiller addiction by crooning, "Maybe the sun will shine today and crowds will roll away", to the sound of Laurel Canyon 1972.
Wilco is a band born of conflict, and whether creatively or from Jeff Tweedy's depressed addictions, those tensions manifest themselves in exquisite abstractions and provocative, distortion-strafed production. With Tweedy now clean and the group at its most cohesive, however, Sky Blue Sky, Wilco's sixth studio effort, lacks both the substance and progressiveness of their earlier work. Even the title's redundancy portends a dearth of imagination.
For fans, every Wilco release is met with equal measures of anticipation and a sort of uncertainty that, though they have made uniformly great records so far, the next could be terrible. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was incredible, delivering in full on the promises of the rock and pop genres (“playing Kiss covers beautiful and stoned”), and its lyrical content and production nuance gave it a bottomless pit of depth. It seemed worthy of and able to pay back any amount of attention one could give it.