So. New Wilco album. I didn’t get it the day it came out — there aren’t any record stores in Oxford, so I waited until I could make it to Criminal Records in Atlanta. (They’re having money problems; I’d rather buy it from them than online. Sling some business their way if you can.) For a while I’ve been struggling to form strong opinions about it. I don’t dislike The Whole Love; I like it more than Wilco (The Album), and not as much as Sky Blue Sky. I could talk about how Wilco seems to be cycling from alt-country around to something more progressive and then repeating the cycle, but… it’s just not all that interesting.
And it’s not like I don’t have other draws on my time at the moment. I don’t want to spend my limited free time writing about things that don’t provoke strong responses in me, whether positive or negative. I’m neutral on The Whole Love. The album makes sense to me. It doesn’t do much to challenge me. Some of the tracks are intriguing, some make sense in the context of Wilco’s overall discography, and some I find eminently skippable. There’s not a lot more I have to say about the album.
That’s what I thought. And then I saw today’s New York Magazine piece by Nitsuh Abebe that asks an intriguing question: are Wilco and Feist our adult contemporary music?
Months before the release of Wilco’s latest record, The Whole Love, front man Jeff Tweedy told Spin the album might turn out a bit obnoxious and irreverent, at least compared with the band’s other work. Of course, he also figured that as soon as the record was out, there’d be “somebody sitting in a basement at their computer with the word ‘meh’ already typed up,” waiting to write it off. The finished product certainly doesn’t sound cramped; it ranges around from sunny Americana to pop-rock fundamentals, and it’s bookended by two long tracks you might describe as experiments. But it’s the kind of record a lot of fans praise not by pointing out powerful songs or grand ideas but by spotlighting the musicians themselves—some imaginative, molten-metal guitar leads from Nels Cline here, some nimble and inventive drumming from Glenn Kotche there. It turns out that Tweedy and his basement “meh”-sayers are both right: Wilco has packed some first-rate musicianship into an album that feels a bit like sitting on a Chicago back deck watching a particularly uneventful baseball game.
…If I were to claim that records like Metals and The Whole Love—or recent albums by Neko Case, Bon Iver, Stephen Malkmus, perhaps even Radiohead—represented some kind of norm or mainstream in American music, you might wrinkle your nose a bit. These acts don’t sell nearly the number of records that Beyoncé or Taylor Swift or Coldplay do, and we have the habit of thinking of them as independent acts (and, by extension, underdogs). But if there is a consensus about what counts as respectable, adult music in 2011, these acts are surely a part of it: While more people consider pop music inherently silly than enjoy it, few assaults are leveled at the seriousness or artistic value of this stuff. It’s tasteful and subtle and brings a few newish ideas to the middle of the road; it adheres to a classic sense of what rock and American music are, but approaches it from artful enough directions to not seem entirely fusty; a certain type of teenager and a certain type of parent might agree on it. If this sounds close to the definition of what was once considered “adult contemporary,” well, that’s precisely the territory bands like Wilco have spent the past decade colonizing, often entirely by accident. One good indicator of this norm’s normalness? The main criticism you hear about this kind of record—even outweighing references to Starbucks and/or the bourgeoisie—is that it is just too dull to even bother producing any more complex indictment of it.
Twice this fall I’ve been within striking distance of Wilco on the night of a show, and gone are the days when the promise of watching Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline shred the hell out of “Handshake Drugs” was enough to overcome all financial and logistical difficulties. The clerk at Criminal Records asked me sympathetically if I wasn’t able to get a ticket to the show; I told him I didn’t feel I was missing anything. Fact is, I’m in Jeff Tweedy’s ‘meh’ zone. I’d hoped that The Whole Love would make me reconsider — as I said in January, this album was likely to tell us something about whether or not Wilco was in a rut. As far as I’m concerned, the answer is yes, they are. I think there’s something to Abebe’s conjecture about Wilco’s potential place in an evolving adult contemporary canon. I can’t judge what they’re like live after the release of The Whole Love, but the album is inoffensive. It’s safe. It doesn’t excite me. And I’m not willing to hand over $50 or more for tickets, fees, parking, and gas money for music that doesn’t excite me.
And sure, there are more questions to answer about Wilco’s work. Jim DeRogatis is still keeping an eye on Tweedy’s affiliation with Rahm Emanuel, for one thing. I’m also curious about exactly what Jane Smiley has to do with the last track on The Whole Love, though I can’t shake the feeling that poking at it too closely would be like exploring Bluebeard’s closet — I’m not likely to like what I’d find. (Admittedly, my only encounter with Smiley’s work to this point is A Thousand Acres, her retelling of King Lear in the age of Iowa agribusiness — in other words, not a work that would encourage me to overcome the Bluebeard-inspired jeeblies.) There are other questions, too. But someone else can and should ask and answer them. I’ve got other, more interesting fish to fry.
That, and as down as Tweedy seems on not just the internet, but his audience — basement reviewers (I live on the ground floor, thank you very much) typing ‘meh,’ all conversation on the internet coming down to socialist kittens (I don’t know where he hangs out on the internet, but it’s clearly not where I hang out) — it makes me wonder what value he sees in us, aside from the money we give him. So, yes, I’m fine with Abebe’s conjecture: Wilco’s recent output is safe, inoffensive, has a decent beat, and enough frills to be respectable. I look forward to hearing it on JACK-FM any day now.