Wilco’s third album is Jeff Tweedy’s attempt to “go pop.” It’s a noble try, but it don’t work. On their debut, A.M. , and the massive follow-up, Being There , Tweedy and crew wrote some well-thought-out and executed songs. He forgot to do that this time. In a year that had the former Uncle Tupelo founder performing in the alternative super-group Golden Smog and co-writing Mermaid Avenue with Billy Bragg, the end of the year offering by Wilco seems to have gotten the short end of the musical stick. By totally abandoning the principles that got him this far (intelligent rock and roll with a country touch), he gives the listener no familiar ground on which to stand when confronted with this record. His overloading each song with cute little pop tricks like bells and backwards vocals hides any good songs that might be lurking in this soup. It’s not that trying something new is wrong — Joe Prentice of the Scud Mountain Boys abandoned the roots movement entirely with Overcome by Happiness and made a brilliant, disturbing record, one of the best of last year. So it can be done, if you are willing to put the work into it.
Tweedy instead goes for the long bomb, with nifty production and nonsensical lyrics that seem to be from an alienated, resigned perspective. In fact, several of the songs here are downright violent in nature — “She begs me not to hit her” from “She’s a Jar” or “Via Chicago” and “I dreamed about killing you again last night/ And it felt alright to me.” If Jeff is going American Psycho on us, then explore it, don’t use it for cheap effect to sell records and generate Internet traffic.
This is not to say the record doesn’t have it’s moments — “A Shot in the Arm” is catchy, with a nifty refrain of “The ashtray says/You were up all night,” and “Can’t Stand It” opens the record with a great summer radio song. But the records best moments are obscured by a bad case of “Brian Wilson” or “Paul Westerberg” wannabie-itis (“She’s A Jar” sounds like a Westerberg out-take, which, considering his dismal solo output, isn’t a welcome thing). This record can’t stand on its own feet — it’s a musical leech, taking the best ideas of others and offering none of its own.
Reprise Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, 21th Floor, New York, NY 10019