The new Wilco record is really marvelous. I have been listening to it over and over again, and while not listening to Sky Blue Sky, I've been listening to Kicking Television and A Ghost Is Born. This new one is that kind of record. It opens your ears to all of the confusing and amelodic parts of the last two albums, it confirms that guitarist Nels Cline is indeed the exact right replacement for Jay Bennett, and it does all this while being (like every previous Wilco studio record) completely different from the one that preceded it.
The key however to my immediate embrace of Sky Blue Sky isn't a Wilco record at all. Earlier this year, I got an advance of the new Gomez album, How We Operate, and was initially totally underwhelmed by it. It seemed like the band was operating with one hand tied behind their backs, playing only mild midtempo songs and cutting back hugely on the weirdness that made Liquid Skin and In Our Gun such vast and relistenable records. But because Gomez are one of a very short list of favorite bands of mine that didn't break up 10 or more years ago, I stayed with it. Eventually, I came to really appreciate How We Operate. It's a little too earnest in places, but I see how the band was challenging themselves by trying to concentrate on a specific and perhaps too-long underrepresented aspect of their sound.
Sky Blue Sky is less self-consciously radio-friendly than How We Operate. Well, that's not precisely correct. It's perfectly friendly to AM radio circa 1974. It's a record of slow, electric ballads minimally arranged and lyrically it's a lot more opaque than the frequently confessional A Ghost Is Born. The sort of electronic augmentation that enlivened Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and then drove parts of Ghost into the ground is present on Sky Blue, but in more of a background role. What's foregrounded is clever, subtle group performances and some typically indirect Jeff Tweedy melodies. Many of the songs end with short, contained solos from Cline, who can be unlistenably self-indulgent at times. His work on this record really forces a reassessment. While Tweedy and Jim O'Rourke's strangled soloing on A Ghost Is Born was only the most extreme expression of an album steeped in self-doubt and confusion, Cline's role on Sky Blue Sky is quite different. Most of these songs are so acutely arranged and structured as to be almost airless; Cline's messy and expressive playing adds the spark of danger and passion that Tweedy's work sometimes forgets.
If the career-summarizing Kicking Television, a double live album featuring Cline's first recorded work with the group, was Tweedy's celebration having finally settled on a lineup with whom he could work, Sky Blue Sky is the songwriter's way of upping the ante by presenting his band with some difficult, narrow, fussy songs and seeing where they can take them. Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche are more than up to the challenge. The album hits stores on May 15th; you'll be hearing a lot more about it around then.