I once offered Wilco up to a friend when she asked for some recommendations and when she asked what they sounded like, I scrambled and said Sonic Youth. Yeah, I know, doesn’t make much sense, but considering she didn’t know what Sonic Youth sounded like either, it didn’t really matter. But looking back, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot could pass for a late-period Sonic Youth album, when they focused more on tune than noise but kept the latter around for color. And several of these songs are drenched in noise: “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”’s engaging in “Karma Police”’s own concluding melodrama, the verses of “Radio Cure” in contrast to the sunnier yet sadder choruses, and most obviously, “Poor Places”’s conclusion, with only a robotic woman’s voice repeating the nonsensical title of the album to give you guidance through the glass shards. Moreover, both Wilco and Sonic Youth released albums that signified as something more than just a collection of music in the post-9/11 confusion; even though Jeff Tweedy has made it known that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was recorded earlier than the event, it’s hard not to connect the two, what, with the two towers on the cover or “Jesus, etc.”’s chorused “Tall buildings shake.”
And you know what? It makes more sense to compare Wilco to Sonic Youth than it does to Radiohead, off the basis that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was to Summerteeth what OK Computer was to The Bends: a giant leap forward from straight forward alternative rock into art rock. But when everyone called them the American Radiohead, it also painted them in a corner, and Jeff Tweedy was incapable of making a career out of constant shifts, as indicated by the Jay Bennett-less A Ghost is Born. But if we have to compare Wilco to Radiohead, we should talk about more than just their ability to evolve sonically, but on other specifics that Radiohead are known for: cohesiveness and catharses. Much has been made about Radiohead’s meticulousness in OK Computer’s tracklist, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is no different: the bouncier “Kamera” and “War on War” are placed perfectly between the album’s three heaviest cuts, while the second half’s songs either burst or bleed into the next.
Meanwhile, Jeff Tweedy hits a lyrical high maintained throughout the entire album that he only hinted at previously. In the opening verse of the opening song, he moves from alliterative abstractions (“I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue”) to more straight-forward thoughts of isolation (“I’m hiding out in the big city blinking / What was I thinking when I let go of you). And I was originally befuddled by the alternative spelling in the second song’s title, but it becomes clear he’s talking about a made-up invention that can do the impossible (“I need a kamera, to my eye / To my eye, reminding / Which lies I have been hiding”). And the 40-some minutes that follows are full of simple and great lines that I’m surprised more people haven’t exploited more often: the off-handed “And, no, it’s not okay” that follows the plea “Phone my family, tell them I’m lost on the sidewalk”; slightly cheery but ultimately desperate; “Distance has no way of making love understandable”; God long distance relationships suck; “Cheer up, honey, I hope you can…” and its even simpler cousin, “Jesus, don’t cry…”; “There is something wrong with me”; “I’ve got reservations, but not about you.”
Of course, catharses in music is a lot more than just well-placed and well-sung lyrics, it’s about the music (obviously). Truthfully, the opening measure of weeping violins of “Jesus, etc.” speaks larger quantities than any of the song’s lyrics (which is also why the version on Kicking Television: Live in Chicago – where the strings are barely audible and sound synthesized – kind of sucks). Meanwhile, how strained Jeff Tweedy’s singing is on “Radio Cure” actually annoys me if I’m not in the mood for it, so instead, listen to how the lightly picked acoustic guitar turns starker at points, as if the guitarist plucked the strings as far back as possible and released, or listen to the blippy keyboard melody in the choruses, or really try and pinpoint when the restrained but rapid drumroll starts and when exactly it evaporates. And when “Reservations” reaches its glistening crescendo, the song shifts into an entirely new one at the 3:38 mark, with what could easily pass as the background music for an independent film corporation’s opening logo, before turning into a foggy soundtrack for the walk back home.
Actually, for the longest time, I always assumed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was riding too much on the goodwill of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Jesus, etc.”; I understood when I first heard it that this was an album without a single bad song, but I always thought that the rest of the songs were just varying degrees of alternative rock sing-alongs with low aspirations. I’m dumb; Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the sort of album that’s dense with detail, where every new play is a guaranteed discovery of something new. For example, I had previously wrote off “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m The Man Who Loves You” as nothing more than effective punchier numbers to balance out the slower and softer second side; songs where you knew everything you needed to know from the opening measure alone: a lyrical drum intro and “I’m Always In Love”-like lasers, respectively. Kicking myself, because I had failed to notice “Heavy Metal Drummer”’s how the piano melody that’s supposed to lead us into the second chorus disintegrates on us before finishing its job, or the wispy backing vocals in the actual chorus (“Beautiful and stoned” indeed). Kicking myself, because I missed the subtle guitar fills of “I’m the Man Who Loves You” or the bass brass that come in around the 2:20 mark and turn into full-fledged trumpet fanfare, fitting for the declaration of the title.
That being said, all the violins, horns and glockenspiels in the world couldn’t make any of these songs touch the perfection of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” There’s not a single wasted second or sound here, regardless of how the song is 7 minutes in length or with the most color of any of the songs here: alarms, a descending keyboard melody that’s built out of unnatural chords yet sounds perfectly natural, and a drummer that sounds like he has access to every drum, clava and shaker imaginable. The rhetorical questions asked throughout – “What was I thinking when I let go of you?” “…when I said it didn’t hurt?” “…when I said good night?” “…when I said hello?” “…when I let you back in?” – suggest that the song’s title is nothing more than wish fulfillment: he’s the one getting his heart broken regardless if he’s the one who did the heartbreaking, and the song’s conclusion screams it out: “I’m the man who loves you” over a cacophony of noise. (Or maybe the song’s detailing the relationship in reverse.)
Sorry, Turn on the Bright Lights, I’ve found someone new.