thu 07/07/2022

Album: Wilco - Cruel Country | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Wilco - Cruel Country

Album: Wilco - Cruel Country

Jeff Tweedy finds pained beauty and common bonds in a broken country

'Stripping himself and his country to their essences'

As the pandemic receded, Wilco huddled together in Jeff Tweedy’s Chicago studio and played country songs, an easefully naturally act as the world around them shook. Though famed for the experimental, eerily timely Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001) and the crackling electric contrails of its further-out follow-up A Ghost Is Born (2004), Wilco have often returned to simpler verities.

Now their 12th album adds a recognisable branch to Tweedy’s ex-band Uncle Tupelo’s tree, as this founding father revisits Americana: 21 songs framed by steel and acoustic guitar, stripping himself and his country to their essences.

Tweedy’s voice is essentially fragile and, after all this time, indomitable. Two of his favourite albums are The Kinks’ early ‘70s records Muswell Hillbillies and Everybody’s In Show-Biz, bruised sets of songs by musicians who life had stripped of their protective skins, leaving them tender to the touch and to the listener too. Tweedy, knocked around by addiction and battered self-esteem, is a true inheritor of The Kinks’ sensibility, focusing on sympathy forged by pain. His record with his son Spencer, Sukierae, which touched on his wife Susie’s cancer – since fought off – brought this to the surface, through the thickets of enigmatic haikus in which he had previously couched confessions. Now, all his albums are clearly the ongoing story of a marriage, and his more troubled relationship with his country. “Love it or leave it,” he’s said of the USA, in his preface to Cruel Country – turning the old sneering cavil to mean he won’t leave, and having stayed, he’d better love.

The opener “I Am My Mother” watches immigrants “streaming over the southern border”, bearing “dangerous dreams”. As steel guitar wails, Tweedy considers his own complexity in a riven nation, no liberal saint: “I’m a new man, but I’m still my mother.” The lesson he sternly holds to could find a home in Trump country and New York, if bridges remained: “If it were up to me/I would have rejected the idea/That money can keep you poor.” On “Cruel Country”, he loves his country “like a little boy”, though “it’s stupid and cruel”, murmuring of cleansing self-immolation while singing together in the choir. “Do you remember when we would forget?”, back when “I guess, we were an empty continent”, he asks in “Hints” – echoing “White Wooden Cross” on Ode to Joy (2019), which bitterly remembered “when wars used to end”. Now, the middle ground is a bombed-out wasteland, where culture warriors can’t forgive.

The story is returned to on this album’s 21st and last song, “The Plains”, where windblown distortion rips across the ceaseless boredom of a purgatorial Middle America, stoic flyover states where “you never get over feeling used”. Tweedy’s voice drags, till pretty Tex-Mex guitar offers forlorn Western romance, and an abandoned soul adjudges: “From what I see, on my TV/There isn’t any point in being free/When there’s nowhere else, you would rather be.”

In between, there are men frightened of themselves and what they might do (“I’m Tired of Taking It Out on You”), and a vignette of paranoia in a diner, rhythms shifting beneath suspicious words (“Tonight’s the Day”). There is cosmic beauty, made human as the singer tearfully pictures stars dying (“Many Worlds”), as death later reaches him, riding music of brisk, Stanley Brothers remorselessness (“A Lifetime to Find”).

Music and lives are almost the same thing, not quite enough yet infinitely moving. As Tweedy sings on “All Across the World”, “I’ve seen too much, and it’s hard to watch/…What’s a song gonna do?” Bright country picking meanwhile plays to a steady, equine clip, the rustic heartbeat. Wilco grace these songs, whether with the McCartneyesque piano melody and long guitar reverie of “Many Worlds”, or brass breathing through the chamber-country of “Darkness Is Cheap”.

All this album’s misgivings and regrets come down to the marital confession in “Sad Kind of Way”: “The best I’ve ever been, is the beauty you see in me.” America’s hope is in this American’s fallible humanity, the common bond beneath all the futile wars.

Tweedy is a true inheritor of The Kinks’ sensibility, focusing on sympathy forged by pain

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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