‘It’s part of our DNA’: Wilco embraces its country roots on first double album since 1996’s Being There

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There was a recurring theme to much of the media coverage leading up to the May release of Wilco’s newest album, Cruel Country.

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Rolling Stone’s review of the double album came with the headline “Wilco goes country.” The opening line in a recent feature from hometown paper Chicago Sun-Times proclaimed “Wilco is going country.”

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“Wilco re-embraces country music” was the headline in Variety. “The band returns to its alt-country roots,” declared The Guardian.

For those who aren’t familiar with the six-piece act’s complicated relationship with country or, more specifically, alt-country, it may be hard to understand what all the fuss is about. But there was a time when Jeff Tweedy, singer-songwriter and band leader, faced flak from purists who felt he was betraying the sound he had helped create with his pre-Wilco act Uncle Tupelo. That band was so closely associated with the alt-country label that the subgenre also became known as No Depression, which was the name of the act’s 1990 debut. Much of Wilco’s early output, starting with certain tracks on its 1996 sophomore Being There, seemed at least partially designed to show they had no intention of staying true to any genre conventions, even those they had played a part in creating. So the idea of making a country record, and labelling it as such, just seemed … amusing.

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“It’s just kinda fun to say, ‘Ok, this is a country record,’” says bassist John Stirratt, in a phone interview with Postmedia. “We’ve always tried to be elusive when it came to that tag, dating back to the No Depression days when we were bristling at this idea of alternative country. But it’s part of the band’s DNA and something very familiar. Jeff could just write songs forever — nice, good country songs — like that. It’s strongly in his wheelhouse.”

It doesn’t take long into the sprawling double album, Wilco’s 12th, to notice a pleasing flow to the tracks. The 21 songs boast the band’s hallmark haunting melodies but very little of the sonic adventure that defined past work such as 1999’s layered art-pop gem Summerteeth, the mesmerizing and densely packed 2002 classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 2004’s desolate and uncompromising A Ghost is Born, all albums that found the act veering sharply from Uncle Tupelo’s alt-country sound.

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As with many bands, the pandemic downtime led to an abundance of material. Tweedy sent his bandmates demos during lockdowns and it became clear that he was building a large collection of “weird murky folk tunes,” Stirratt says. It also became clear that, unlike much of the band’s past work, the songs could be recorded in free-flowing live takes at their home studio rather than painstakingly constructed.

“I love working that way,” he says. “There’s certainly a case for both methods. But I think given the fact that this was a traditional sound, a lot of these songs sound like they were written in 1968 and should have a live ensemble in the studio playing them. So it made a lot of sense to do that. It also allows us to really lean on each other after all these years of playing together and helps create these moments that are unforeseen.”

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Stirratt said recording the album reminded him of the sessions that created Being There, which is the last time the band released a double record. There were just too many powerful, interlocking numbers that reflected this period in the band’s history to limit them to a single album. Most of Cruel Country is made up of slower-tempo songs that never speed past the sturdy old-school country shuffle of A Lifetime to Find or Falling Apart (Right Now). Many of the songs, including The Empty Condor and Darkness is Cheap, are sighing ballads based largely around acoustic guitar and Tweedy’s smoky, fragile vocals.

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But while the album may sound warm and comforting, that doesn’t mean it isn’t anchored by some sharp observations by Tweedy as a songwriter. On the title track, it’s hard to know if Tweedy is directly questioning unwavering patriotism or simply reflecting on the division in his country when he sings “I love my country like a little boy” and “All you have to do is sing in the choir. Set yourself on fire every once in a while.” One of the first songs Stirratt worked on was Hints, which contains poetic imagery offset by an unusually blunt chorus that has Tweedy singing “There is no middle when the other side would rather kill than compromise.”

“I remember just loving the imagery and that (line) ‘We stretched our necks to hear below the decks,’ just this idea of a nascent America and dropping in to America today,” says Stirratt, who will perform with his bandmates at Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Sept. 21 and Calgary’s Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium on Sept. 23. “It was just beautifully thought out and beautiful imagery. I think even Cruel Country, the song, is a great commentary. That’s what we want from art.”

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This year also marked the 20th anniversary of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That album is regarded by many as the band’s creative peak, turning them into what Spin Magazine called the “midwestern Radiohead” and Tweedy into an unlikely rock star. That album’s tumultuous birth — chronicled in Sam Jones’s 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco and Greg Kot’s biography Wilco: Learning How to Die — seems in direct contrast to the relatively smooth, all-for-one camaraderie of Cruel Country.

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Other than Tweedy, Stirratt is the only original member of Wilco. He actually joined Uncle Tupelo for the band’s final album, 1993’s Anodyne. So he has been with the act throughout its many sonic evolutions and has also witnessed the strange phenomenon of music critics becoming armchair psychologists when speculating about how Tweedy’s personal life, struggles and relationships with former band members have influenced the sound and tone of various albums.

“Everyone thinks that they understand everyone’s motivation,” Stirratt says. “It’s just impossible to tell the real story for anyone who wasn’t there for any part of the story. With documentaries and whatever, there’s so much responsibility and so many ways it can go wrong, the stories of these records, especially when it deals with interpersonal stuff. I think people just like to get their hot take out and think that it’s the record. I think the best writing leaves open this possibility that they might not know everything.”

Wilco play the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver on Sept. 21 and the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary on Sept. 23.

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