So you’re a Wilco fan. Well, maybe not even a fan at the moment. But it’s 2002 and you’ve been following Jeff Tweedy and his band of down-home intellectuals for the past number of years. The ‘alt-country’ stuff that Tweedy had helped bring to fruition with Uncle Tupelo was keeping you pleasantly entertained. And Being There was pretty good, right? Everyone liked that album. And many loved it.
But you got a weird feeling during Summerteeth. It might have been those dark lyrics pinned under the sunshine-y melodies, but mostly it was that weird feedback stuff that was going on underneath it all. And the off-kilter drumming, and the way it felt like these guys were aiming for something else that you still aren’t sure of.
You’ve heard the backstory behind Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — that it was chucked back at the band by Reprise like it was garbage; Wilco got dropped and opted for a Nonesuch release. So things might not be looking good for your pleasant little sing-along misfits. What could this record sound like to warrant such vitriol? It is, after all, produced in part by Jim O’Rourke, that weird Chicago guy who does stuff with Sonic Youth. And what’s with these strange parallels with 9/11 that you keep hearing about? As you pick it up in the record store, you even notice the two skyscrapers shot out against the sky on the cover. Weird. You get home and, a little wary, pop this thing into your CD player.
In retrospect, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot isn’t as unconventional and off-putting as its background would have led many listeners to believe. It’s often downright catchy. But the initial reactions were not misplaced — this record really did signify not only the attitude of popular music in the early 2000s, but the attitude of America in the early 2000s. While half the fans wanted Wilco to become the American version of The Rolling Stones, the other half wanted them to become the American version of Radiohead — to ‘push the boundaries’ and reinforce the idea that the 21st century was not a time for mourning or personal decay as the human race settles in the increasingly technological era, but rather a time of emotional and spiritual progress. All those platitudes.
Somehow, Tweedy and co. managed both. Shimmering and occasionally eerie, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is nevertheless warm and open-hearted; lyrically confusing but still a firm disciple of the most blatantly emotional pop music that preceded it.
Personally, YHF always makes me feel like I’m half-asleep in a car caught in gridlock traffic in some American city, on one of those days where it’s just finished raining and the sun shines through the thin clouds. Brighter and brighter it gets, and yet you still can’t see it — though you know that any minute now it’ll appear. And it looks beautiful against those skyscrapers.
Wilco — Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: Track-by-track review
1. “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”
Straight off, the cries of over-weirdness could be justified. Any band that began their last album with ‘The way things go, you get so low’ and begins their latest with ‘I am an American aquarium drinker’ is already carving a space away from any preconceived notions.
“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, though, is nevertheless a perfect opener and perhaps the best song on the album (although this is one of those rare albums in which any one could be a favorite — which is different than the best, of course).
The greatest thing about this track (which shares its title with a documentary about the making of the album, featuring some arguments between Jeff Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett; arguments that surely led to his resignation/firing from Wilco afterward) is that you are constantly thrown off as to where it’s going to take you. While not a slow song, it nevertheless takes its time starting, with some piano noodling, the tick of a metronome, and an alarm clock ringing against the great Glenn Kotche’s drum rolls — rolls that wind down and place a hi-hat beat in the middle, until forming what sounds like a consistent rhythm.
But then they don’t. Tweedy sings his non-sequiturs (can non-sequiturs exist if none of the lyrics make any narrative sense?) completely deadpan, as the instruments pile up, fall out and muddle around while still pulling the song through.
‘I want to hold you in the Bible-black pre-dawn,’ Tweedy sings. ‘You’re quite a quiet domino — bury me now.’ Lovely and complete nonsense. And soon afterward, at 4:13, everything does lock together, in a flat-out gorgeous swarm of two piano chords and an acoustic guitar. And the drum rhythm suddenly makes sense.
And then it all falls out again, as what sounds like a cello takes a dark center with a three-note, ominous climb. And through the left speaker, feedback goes in and out — Tweedy now sings louder, his deadpan ethos suddenly gone.
The song — in context or not — sounds like a radio transmission that started picking up other frequencies that just so happened to be one of those perfect moments in life where everything lined up and made something truly lovely. The many layers of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” could be described in much greater lengths. Consider the fact that it took me seven paragraphs before I relay the obvious conclusion: that this is only the beginning.
“Kamera”, one of the most immediately lovable songs on the album, opens with an acoustic guitar and drums, banging out a simple chord progression for a few bars before a marvelous electric guitar chimes in, with tone like gently flowing water.
What the lyrics of this song ‘mean’ is beyond me, but like many songs from Wilco, they don’t make themselves immediately clear. Rather, they exist as catalysts for the way Tweedy delivers them and the way that the arrangements seem to flow naturally from them.
Some gentle hints of electronica skitter in the background during the gorgeous middle eight, where the band eschews a guitar solo and instead have all the instruments play off each other. The amazing thing about how they do it here is that no instrument seems to take center stage — it seems to move around in a circle — and, even more amazing, that it is built almost entirely from small slices of chords.
“Tell my family, tell ’em I’m lost on the sidewalk,” sings Tweedy, finally admitting at the end (almost cheerfully) “I’m lost — yeah, I’m lost. And no, it’s not okay.” And wouldn’t you know it? He actually sounds happy about it, as the song ends with a coda of a lovely vibraphone line running through the chords again and again. Being lost here is a chance for discovery, you think to yourself as that last chord strikes.
3. “Radio Cure”
In the track explanations for this album, I haven’t yet referenced the strange parallels that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has with 9/11. The truth is, though, that the album doesn’t really hint at 9/11 itself as a literal thing at all, at least not to any great extent. Yes, even despite the skyscrapers on the front or the ‘ashes of American flags’ mentioned later. It seems like nothing more than pathetic scrounging by the people who claim to see so many references, trying to slather on symbolism that isn’t there.
The reason this got people thinking of 9/11, really, was the ethos of the album — a kind of foggy, distinctly American wonder at our abilities and collective feelings about our country — that simply hit hard after 9/11. And it shows the best in the American spirit, too — acknowledging wrongness or tragedy, and yet willing to correct and heal… and have fun, too. I even have a friend who says that if UFOs came from space, having no idea of what the United States was all about, then Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would be the first album that he would hand them to give them the musical impression of what it’s ‘like.’
“Radio Cure” is one of the more somber tracks here, and immediately acknowledges defeat and/or tragedy, with a sad acoustic guitar being haphazardly strummed against a foreboding series of piano chords and eerie, almost mechanistic drumbeat.
“Cheer up, honey I hope you can/There is something wrong with me.” It’s a softly-worded and yet arresting opening, as the radio hisses heard briefly in “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” become more prominent. All the while, an electric guitar pitters away so delicately that it sounds like a slight gust of wind could blow it away. And, God almighty, that actually sounds like it’s happening.
One of the things I love most about this album, and Wilco more broadly, is that they choose to hint at beauty rather than exploit it — giving the listener brief tastes before releasing it all in a terrific catharsis. And we get one here, as the drumbeat tightens and the song steps almost completely out of its melancholy and becomes a triumphant march. “Distance has no way of making love understandable.” True that. But this song keeps you close anyway.
4. “War On War”
As if to leaven the hints of tension put forth in “Radio Cure”, “War On War” charges in as a shamelessly summer day’s song, still with some electronic ‘weird’ sounds, but actually warm and cheerful this time, as the drumbeat fluctuates in strength and the bassline bobs in time to the few piano/guitar chords.
It might be safe to say that if you don’t like “War On War”, you simply won’t be a Wilco fan. It contains the bumpy electronic soundscape gestures as well as their charming and playful sides that relate to the best celebratory American pop music, showing a strong influence of The Beatles as well as (with their rebel-without-a-clue lyrics) The Replacements.
The high-pitched synthesizer soon takes center stage before passing it off to the piano again, then Tweedy, and on and on. And those last six seconds, instead of making me feel put off, actually make me laugh. They seem perfectly whimsical enough to end the song, and prepares you nicely for the quieter whimsy of the next track.
5. “Jesus, Etc.”
And here’s “Jesus, Etc.”, a track agreed by many to be the album’s most accessible (and/or best) track. Like “War On War”, this is an example of a track that is very emblematic of the album it’s on, and therefore if you don’t like it you probably won’t go for the rest of the album. And you’re also heartless.
Opening with a snappy fiddle line that leaves it unclear whether the song is going to be major or minor-keyed, Tweedy’s voice quickly clears any notion of bleakness off the table with his comforting voice.
I’ll be around
You were right about the stars
Each one is a setting sun
Just as you think the track will sink into a place of monotony, the strings creep back in — delicate and non-intrusive, and yet prevalent enough to make the song get better and better as it goes on. And it does do that — after another supposed 9/11 parallel (‘Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs’), a reverb-laden pedal steel guitar comes in briefly, and just as you think, ‘shoot! It’s going away!’ the best part comes in: some pizzicato (hand plucked) strings with a melody that’s simply gorgeous.
But then again, the whole thing is simply gorgeous.
6. “Ashes Of American Flags”
On comes the most eerie parallel to 9/11 on the entire album. The title alone implies something tragic, and yet the track awesomely offsets it with some hopeful performances — and yet, Tweedy and the band don’t trivialize anything.
Over a slow piano that sounds like someone taking their first steps out their door in the morning, a four-note guitar line — with reverb and an almost harsh tone — enters and lingers in the background through most of the song. Like the shark in Jaws, the guitar here is sensed more than it’s actually seen.
Jeff Tweedy gives his all-out saddest vocal performance here, and it’s a touching moment when he stops singing and the vague electronics murmur around the space he’s left, leaving nothing. Though, admittedly, I always found the delivery of the following line — ‘I would like to salute the ashes of American flags’ — to be rather cloying; seeming to be a self-righteous statement rather than a haunting admission that I think Tweedy intended it to be.
But, minor quibbles. On Kicking Television: Live In Chicago, the live album that well documents Wilco’s famous concerts, “Ashes Of American Flags” is made even more epic by the spectacular work of guitar master Nels Cline, and you can see then how well the band and producer O’Rourke used the empty space to allow fillings-in later.
In the last five seconds, a piano triplet is played that foreshadows the hook of our next song. Of course, if this is your first listen you won’t know that yet.
7. “Heavy Metal Drummer”
Okay, I changed my mind one more time: this is the most accessible and immediately-lovable song on the album (all respect, of course, to “War On War” and “Jesus, Etc.”). I don’t think anyone in the world can dislike this song. And if they tell you that they dislike it, they’re lying. Trust me on this.
Well, you don’t have to trust me, actually. Just listen to the damn thing. A joyfully-strummed acoustic guitar, a here-I-am-and-get-out-of-my-way drum beat that yet somehow doesn’t seem intrusive… and Tweedy’s most shamelessly nostalgic lyrics ever (and that’s saying something, if you’ve heard any of Being There).
There’s no confusion of meaning here — as electronics beep and blip cheerfully, Tweedy reflects back to some girl who ‘fell in love with the drummer’ (try saying that phrase without singing after you listen to the song) of a heavy metal band.
What endears me most about the lyrics, though, is the way that Tweedy’s lyrics, while perfectly understandable, have no segue between who’s-who. Who’s ‘she?’ That’s never answered. Jeff sings about how he misses the heavy metal bands that played in the summer, and then just transitions to that line about falling in love. And you know what? You don’t care.
The clincher, though — aside from that piano line that connects the phrases that’s foreshadowed in the last bit of the previous song — is Tweedy hitting his nostalgia home with the repeated line ‘Playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned.’ You can see the summers of your youth swarming into your memory banks right now, can’t ya?
8. “I’m The Man Who Loves You”
Well, no album is perfect, right? The one weak track on the album (always a good topic of conversation about albums) opens with a blast of guitar that could have come from Neil Young circa Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (except Young’s would probably be better).
“I’m The Man Who Loves You”, though, isn’t terrible. It even gains some ground that almost saves it around the halfway point — the horns, the brief acoustic guitar chords under ‘Writing this letter to you’ that could have (and should have) been developed more.
The last minute, however, is a hopeless dive into something resembling grungy guitar dissonance, but it’s one that doesn’t have the tone or tune to carry it through, and when the song ends it just seems as if the someone flicked off the power — the ill-advised jam had run its course.
It’s a good place to put the track, though — since the acoustic guitar chords of “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Pot Kettle Black” may have run together for some listeners. Still, a better song would have been more satisfying, no?
9. “Pot Kettle Black”
Often overlooked in discussions of the album, “Pot Kettle Black” is a gently charging song with a strangely hushed vocal from Tweedy, as if he wants the instruments to do the talking — and so they do, here. A cute piano triplet rolls around in the first bit, a sighing electric guitar hook ties lines together now and then, and some wooden blocks provide a clock-like pulse midway through the song.
There’s not much of a bridge here, as the song simply quiets down briefly and the acoustic guitar strums only a minor variation on the chords that were already being played. And then it returns.
The last minute-and-a-bit seem to hint at a more full-fledged charge to cap the song off, and they pretty much do so as the electric guitar figure becomes more prominent… and then, weirdly, it fades out just as you start to hear traces of strings that could have brought it to a peak. And yet, you’re satisfied with the way it ended.
10. “Poor Places”
“Poor Places” is the glittering, gorgeous and unforgettable climax of this trek through the American spirit in the 2000s, and is — while perhaps not everyone’s favorite track here — perhaps the best (well, it and “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”), because it balances its line between melody and distortion precariously and emerges with its head on the ground and its heart on its sleeve.
In a way, the whole of “Poor Places” is the most representative moment of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for those reasons. The song is essentially two parts — the first half a stunning and dreamy stream-of-consciousness poem whose instrumentation grows more and more confident, and the second half the noisiest and most experimental stuff the band does on the entire record.
The first two-and-a-half minutes of “Poor Places” is essentially the most beautiful passage of the entire record, and maybe the most beautiful of Wilco’s whole career, with only the second half of Sky Blue Sky’s “Impossible Germany” a contender. It opens with a car beeping as if a door’s been left open. Remember how I mentioned that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sounds like falling asleep in a foggy-yet-sunny day in a traffic jam in some American city? This is the sound of waking up, sleep still in your eyes, and wandering outside.
Jeff Tweedy manages to string nonsensical phrases here and turn them into endearing snapshots of American life that are somehow wrapped together to become touching and almost, somehow, inspiring:
…the air conditioned rooms at the top of the stairs
There’s bourbon on the breath of the singer you love so much
His jaw’s been broken, his bandage is wrapped too tight
And: ‘I really want to see you tonight.’ Human connection is the essence here, as a piano slowly, slowly swells around, playing chords that get more and more structured as the song goes on, forming some arpeggios under the ‘bandage is wrapped too tight’ line, before descending beautifully and Glenn Kotche crashes his cymbal to lead to the piano forming more and more arpeggios, swarming around until that friendly acoustic guitar comes in.
And there the dissonance comes in soon after, with the piano taking a mysterious tone over a march-like drum. A woman’s voice robotically says ‘Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot.’ And feedback builds around her. And then it just ends.
And here’s what it all boils down to. Delicate acoustic instruments like pianos and guitars have been pushing against each other in the whole of this album, and they finally settle down with each other, snuggling up close for both to take the spotlight.
‘I’ve always been distant and I’ve always told lies… for love’ comes the touching line, and you may wish here that all people could be this honest.
There’s plenty of mentions of ‘you’ and ‘I’ in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (like most albums), but here the ‘you’ (and often even the ‘I’) seem distant, like ghosts. Many of the previous lyrics seem to hint at flesh-and-blood emotion rather than show it (wisely). Here, though it all seems to boil down to genuine feeling, and it’s summed up by the closing line, almost heartbreakingly tender and honest:
I’ve got reservations…about so many things…but not about you. Not about you
Not even halfway through the seven-and-a-half-minute track, Tweedy goes silent and — after a high-pitched burst of electronics that oddly reminds me of the closing flute solo in Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You” — “Reservations” switches into a series of very slow piano chords, echoing like an extended version of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life”. The electronic sounds fizzle and bubble up, but are more hushed than they’ve ever been on the album before, as Tweedy’s last lines reverberate in your head. How ’bout it? A whole album about American life in a rapid-fire age, and it all boils down to finding — and giving — happiness. And being sure of it. But isn’t that what life’s about?
As the last piano chord fades out and the album comes to a stop, you sit for a minute, reflecting. Was this worth the hype? Was it worth the dismissal from Reprise? Was it a garbled mess that wasn’t sure what to do with itself? Were Wilco better with their country stuff?
You’re not really sure yet. You sit for a while, maybe feeling hopeful, maybe sad. Maybe confused, or overwhelmingly lonely. Or disappointed. ‘What did I just listen to?’ you ask yourself. Your brow furrows and you don’t even realize what your hands are doing as they switch back to the start of the album and press play again.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco
“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”
“War On War”
“Ashes Of American Flags”
“Heavy Metal Drummer”
“I’m The Man Who Loves You”
“Pot Kettle Black”