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Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy reinvents his sound, once again

The new album, ‘Cousin’, shows how Wilco's bandleader, Jeff Tweedy, can reinvent and challenge listeners, evolving constantly

Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s bandleader, singer, and songwriter. Photo: Wikipedia
Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s bandleader, singer, and songwriter. Photo: Wikipedia

There are times when the feeling of nostalgia is a balm. It soothes, it calms, and heck, it can even make you happy. Sometimes it’s other people’s nostalgia that can also do the trick. I guess everyone has their own thing about what triggers that feeling. One of mine is when I pick up a 21-year old album by Chicago’s alternative rock band, Wilco. The album is the renowned Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the song that does the trick is titled Heavy Metal Drummer.

On it, Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s bandleader, singer, and songwriter, reflects on his teenage years when he would go to see local bands playing heavy metal covers at gigs nearby where he grew up and the song contrasts the innocence and fun of those days with the cynicism and boredom of his present life. The song also admires the drummer of one of those bands—he was more popular with the girls than the singer—and is also a bit of a homage to the band, Kiss, whose songs those local cover bands often played. Heavy Metal Drummer is one of Wilco’s most upbeat songs and every time I listen to it, it never fails to trigger happy memories of my own.

At the end of September, Wilco released their 13th album, Cousin. When I played it for the first time, it reminded me of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Perhaps because of the way the two records were made. Departing from their usual practice of fully controlling how their music is engineered or mixed, for Yankee Hotel, the band recruited Jim O’Rourke, an alum of the legendary New York City band, Sonic Youth. Likewise, for the more recent Cousin, Tweedy and Co. collaborated with the Welsh musician, Cate Le Bon, who not only produced the album but also played instruments on several tracks.

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Back in 2002, O’Rourke helped Wilco change their musical style—from a style rooted in country music to an indie rock style that was more experimental. In Cousin, the inclusion of Le Bon, who is known to always push the boundaries of traditional guitar rock, gives the album a feel that harkens back to when Wilco first moved out of its early era alt-country and made albums such as YHF.

Wilco, formed by Tweedy in 1994 with a lineup of other band members that changed frequently during their first decade , evolved out of his earlier band named Uncle Tupelo, which was among the pioneers of the genre that critics call alt-country. It is a genre that combines elements of traditional country music with influences from other styles, such as alternative rock, punk, folk, or blues. While alt-country artists often have a more independent and experimental approach to their music, and they may explore themes that are not typical of mainstream country, with Wilco, Tweedy became even more experimental, constantly innovating and pushing in new directions.

By the time YHF came out, Wilco became one of indie rock’s most acclaimed bands. Subsequent albums continued in the same exploratory vein. Yet Wilco has also delved back into more country-infused music. In 2022, with their twelfth album, Cruel Country, Wilco embraced their country roots more wholeheartedly in what is perhaps a demonstration that Tweedy and his bandmates have not lost links with their origins. The compositions on the album are simpler (as country music songs typically are) with some dark themes but are still buoyant. It’s a long magnum opus of an album on which Tweedy explores themes such as mortality, politics, history, and despair. On the title song, set to familiar country chords, he sings: “I love my country like a little boy/ Red, white, and blue/ I love my country, stupid and cruel/ Red, white, and blue/ All you have to do is sing in the choir/ Kill yourself every once in a while/ And sing in the choir with me.”

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On the new album, Cousin, though, Wilco have gone back to being experimental. The Welsh musician Le Bon adds her quirky touch to the album and Tweedy, now 56, explores themes of uncertainty, tiredness, connection, and protest. His voice is more muted and introspective and the music quite unexpectedly adventurous. On Infinite Surprise, there is synth noise and guitar crackle; Ten Dead is about mass shootings in America but delivered in a resigned way; and A Bowl and A Pudding is like a folk song about what could seem like lost love.

Cousin is an album that reflects the era we live in; where hope and despair often coexist; it is an album that shows how Wilco (read Tweedy) can reinvent and challenge listeners, evolving constantly. Diehard fans of Wilco and Tweedy will exult because of exactly that. Yet there is something for others too. It is also an album that can be a perfect starting point for anyone who has not explored the remarkable music that this band makes.

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First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. Sanjoy Narayan posts @sanjoynarayan.

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