Three or four years ago, it would have been unthinkable that Wilco would be relegated to the second page of the Mercury's music section. Our "American Radiohead" was one of the most innovative and fascinating major label acts of the 21st century. After their 2002 fallout with Reprise, Wilco teamed up with sonic adventurer Jim O'Rourke to create the instant classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and followed it up with the supremely underrated A Ghost Is Born, which balanced poetry and dissonance with a firmly Midwestern delicateness. It was a creative evolution that built on the front-porch harmonizing style of the band's early years, but then added layer upon layer of unique instrumentation and a willingness to deconstruct melodies and arrangements before reassembling them anew. Above all, it was a thrilling growth to witness firsthand.
But then last May, Wilco released Sky Blue Sky, prompting an enormous "WTF" from fans across the land. In many ways, Sky Blue Sky is a return to the band's pre-experimental roots: The songs are direct, warm, and slightly alt-countrified. The problem is that we've been conditioned to expect development from Wilco, not regression. The other problem is, it's a pretty boring record. After opening with the entirely pleasant, organ-drenched "Either Way," and the solid "You Are My Face," the third track, "Impossible Germany," is jarred into ruin with a horribly self-indulgent, noodling guitar solo by newest member Nels Cline, and the album begins to fall apart immediately afterward. Coming from one of the best rock bands in America, this was hardly the follow-up record we were all waiting for.
Some conjecture that the tortured layering of Wilco's last two albums were the direct result of Jeff Tweedy's painkiller addiction and related panic attacks. It would be a pity if this were true at all, as it shifts the inspiration away from the songwriter and onto destructive little pills, but for right now it's as good of a conjecture as any. Maybe the band just wanted to record like in the old days, without any superfluous knob-twiddling or cryptic lyric writing. But whatever stunted Wilco's growth between albums is hopefully exorcised on this late summer tour, because I, for one, am ready to be excited by the radical growth of Wilco again.