"I know I would die if I could come back new." So sings Wilco's Jeff Tweedy on the wrenching "Ashes of American Flags," the centerpiece of the new century's first great rock record. Possible hyperbole aside, the fact is that Wilco really is reborn with every record, making them pop's answer to the late, chameleon-esque Miles Davis.
If you know one thing about YHF, you know it's the album that was so daring, so unexpected it got Wilco dropped from their (major) record label. The resulting outcry cemented their status as unlikely underground heroes and sparked an industry feeding frenzy. Fittingly in the context of the modern music biz, they later resurfaced on another subsidiary of the label that dropped them.
It's tempting not to talk about any specific songs here. Where 1999's Summer Teeth resembled a collection of great radio singles, this is a true album, like Dark Side of the Moon or OK Computer, only less self-involved and marginally more transparent.
Temptation aside, here are the highlights. "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" is a churning stop-and-start with bells and willfully busy drumming. "Kamera" sounds like an '80s cover but it ain't. "War on War" is a driving rocker with a breezy '70s undertow. The throbbing, insistent timpani-like bass drum and last-call cackled vocals of "Radio Cure" are as dark as so-called "pop" music can get. And "Heavy Metal Drummer" is the sure hit single that--at Track 7--likely never made it to the ears of Wilco's impatient former label heads.
As usual, Tweedy's songs are at once impeccable and distinctive. And he seems to have trusted enough in their quality to twist and manhandle them in every way possible, both during the recording and mixing processes. The result? Like the strained vocals he exhales, he bleeds every last bit out of them.
Tweedy gets lots of help from legendary avant-garde Chicago producer Jim O'Rourke. Contrary to what one might expect, O'Rourke has claimed in interviews that he actually reined the band in from its looping creative orbit. It's hard to know exactly how extensive his role may have been. But from the distinctive snare pop to the woozy keyboards and recurring distorted short-wave radio sounds, these songs bear his imprint and are the better for it.
With YHF already selling well beyond expectations, the last laugh belongs to Wilco. They've made a record that slowly unfolds with each listen, its meanings coming in and out of focus like images under a dim streetlight. A record that possesses a stubborn hopefulness and an undeniable greatness. As a result, it seems plausible that, 25 years from now, it will still appear near the bottom of the Billboard 200, right next to Dark Side of the Moon.