Looking over the American Billboard music chart every week, one can t help but feel sorry for the current state of American music. As R n B, Hip-Hop, teen pop and middle-of-the-road rock dominate the tumbling record sales, it s difficult not to ponder the glory days, when originality and experimentation were the benchmarks upon which the commercial success of any album was determined.
Yet, at the bottom of these charts and at the margins of popular culture, any music lover would admit that America has become one of the most exciting places for alternative music genres.
Leading the musical carnival is alternative country, a relativity newborn genre rooted in the works of Bakersfield Sound from the 60s. The acknowledged birth of alt. country dates back to 1990 when Uncle Tupelo s groundbreaking LP “No Depression set the template for the entire scene.
Blending the hardcore punk of The Minutemen and the Stooges with the harmonies and classic country instrumentations of Hank Williams, Carter Family and Woody Guthrie created a space for innovation. This allowed bands such as Whiskeytown, The Old 97 s, Calexico, Bright Eyes, Will Oldham, Lambchop and several others to produce some of the most stimulating music of the past 10 years.
No other band has achieved the stratospheric commercial success and public adoration than Wilco, a pet project of former Uncle Tupelo member Jeff Tweedy who brought alt. country to the forefront of world music.
The band was formed only months after Uncle Tupelo s breakup in 1994 and released their first album, A.M. in 1995. A.M. was a modest record containing a standard set of purely alt. country numbers.
A.M. would turn out to be the band s sole misfire and was followed by the double-album Being There, Wilco s greatest achievement to date and one of the 90s best hidden treasures.
It wasn t until 2002 s seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that the band, and the entire genre, truly broke out. The genre-jumping record combined Radiohead s modern-age alienation with Whiskeytown s introspective meditations wrapped in the band s warm, sweetly aching melodies. Foxtrot became Wilco’s best commercial success story.
After the eerie sonic experimentation of 2004 s A Ghost is Born – a disappointing follow-up to Foxtrot – Wilco returns triumphantly this year with Sky Blue Sky, a beautiful album about the ambiguity of life, choice, disintegrating relationships and inner conflicts.
The album kicks off with Either Way, a delightful contemplation on the uncertainty of life lined with Tweedy s cautious optimism. Maybe the sun will shine today; Maybe I won t feel so afraid, Tweedy ruminates over a simple melody soaked in the middle with haunting violin sounds, accompanied by new members Mikael Jorgensen s tender keyboard synthesis and Nels Cline soulful guitar riffs.
You Are My Face and Side with the Seeds treads on similar grounds. Tweedy is eager to embrace the indistinctness of the future, yet he can t seem to let go of the comforting certainties of childhood. As childhood fades slowly, a life of countless choices begins. Although freedom lies in making choices, this indefinite existence doesn t always match the dreams formed earlier.
Impossible Germany, a lighthearted account of a plummeting relationship between a couple unable to recognize their own missteps, is the most thrilling cut of the album. It prominently displays the influence of the new members. The track is built around playful guitar rhythms that develop into a raunchy interplay between Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone. Half-way through, a twin guitar double solo meanders separately, meets in perfect harmony, and drifts again, merging Cline s aggressive noises in Sansone s sweet musical jar.
With the titular track, Tweedy takes a ride down memory lane leading him to his small hometown in Illinois. He watches the buildings, people and his past life disappear as he quietly yearns for the place that wasn t always kind to him. Tweedy s hushed voice sounds like tender, throbbing whispers played over melodies that rank as the intimate in the album.
In Please Be Patient With Me and Leave Me (Like You Found Me), Tweedy sheds all his pretense aside, revealing a man battling with his inner demons. Through a direct plea for his lover, he becomes a lonely creature in need of acceptance and love.
Hate It Here, a George Harrison meets Electric White Orchestra, is about the draining domestic responsibilities of marriage, What Light is a shining ray of light through the melancholia, with a touch of humor. The latter track, a delightful anthem of perseverance, hope and freedom, is the most uplifting track.
Sky Blue Sky is Wilco s least experimental album in years. The shadow of Neil Young, the uncertified Godfather of alt. country, looms over the straightforward musical structure of the record. Cline and Sansone contributions refine the rock sensibilities of the band while framing Tweedy s exquisite melodies in a fresh context.
The album takes a surprising turn with the last track On and On and On. Inspired by the reaction of Tweedy s father to his wife s death, the song captures the sorrow and denial inflicted by mortality. I will live in you, or you will live in me. One day we ll disappear together in a dream, sings an almost tearful Tweedy before launching into a crushing crescendo then settling back into a tear-jerking piano line.
For Tweedy, life after such a grave loss doesn t go on. It freezes, with no sense of hope or joy. Life does ultimately go on, but with a baggage of memories and a constant longing for the lost one. On and On is one the most heart-piercing songs the band s ever written; a perfect end for a truly perfect record.