Although I’d been publishing reviews for a couple of years, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the first album since Moby’s Everything is Wrong whose acclaim mystified me; it marked the first onset of self-doubt. From the song about the heavy metal band which doesn’t sound as if the songwriters had ever heard heavy metal to the opener that recontextualized Saul Bellow as pseudo-triumphalist drivel through a miasma of redundant instruments and mixing board effects, I hated the album on first listen. That whole summer, anticipating that its subtleties would reveal themselves, I played and played it. It worked: the ghostly emanations in Jeff Tweedy’s found their correlative in his lethargic singing; he couldn’t be bothered to bother (of course one of the songs is called “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” [italics mine]). The band whose romantic impulses gained heft when accompanying Billy Bragg’s voice and Woody Guthrie’s lyrics had succumbed to an acedia unbecoming for an act that in 2002 represented all that was best of dark and light in American indie.
But I learned quickly that nothing centers the mind more quickly than another bad acclaimed record. When Beck released Sea Change a few months later and I disliked it too (I didn’t hate it; it was just a garish nullity, as triumphant a Dada gesture as Beck has ever recorded if you care to listen to it this way), the crisis yielded to a trust in first impressions. By a stroke of good fortune Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Sea Change were the top two records of the year, according to The Village Voice. This farrago inspired a dandy Robert Christgau quip: “Wilco’s drummer is Ken Coomer–you could look it up, and I bet you’ll still have to.”
I still count 2002 as a personal triumph: finances secure, teaching becoming and remaining a lark, the coalescing of my sexuality, dancing all night to stuff like “Hot in Herre” (take off all your clothes), “Hate to Say I Told You So” (sounds better than ever) and “House of Jealous Lovers” (just okay). On the album end I still adore the Mekons’ OOOH!, DJ Shadow’s The Private Press (exactly the right kind of introspection), and Missy Elliott’s Under Construction. These three records envision transcendence as personal testimony validated by community. As Marxists recording in the era most beholden to the free market in recorded history, the Mekons howled and ineptly strummed electric folk hymns. Missy drew explicit lines between herself and Heavy D and other artists from back in the day. Meanwhile Shadow was so hounded by influences that he planted his own family tree. The singles chart burbled one grinder after another. Beside “Work It,” “Grindin’,” “Lose Yourself,” “Like I Love You,” and “03 Bonnie & Clyde,” the likes of Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights and Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi something or other sounded entombed — gestures from another era. Beck, Interpol, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s linguistic, musical, and philosophical distance from me didn’t help; the age difference (I was twenty-six) made reconciliation impossible. I was learning that happiness is harder, much harder, to evoke than despair. This is known as the New Order Dictum; this is why lots of us tip our hats to Joy Division but grin stupidly and sweat our asses off to New Order.
The leak of the new album and yet another discussion of Wilco’s merits by former Stylus colleagues inspired this post. Although “I Might” deepened Wilco’s fealty to late seventies George Harrison professionalism, I’m willing to give them another listen. I’ve liked several songs these guys have released since 2002, especially the ones in which Tweedy trusts his guitar over his larynx. But as Stephen Malkmus understands now and the late George Harrison learned when Gerald Ford ran the executive branch, nothing paralyzes an artist more effectively than an audience, swollen and enthusiastic beyond comprehension, anticipating a change in direction. If you’re Malkmus you submit to a capitulation of sorts: you hire the creator of Sea Change as producer (who’d already proven his chops on several Marianne Faithfull recordings and Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts, his own inarticulate but more moving Sea Change). Malkmus, Beck, and Wilco’s happiness is in the roteness of mannerisms; their self-sufficiency motivates cults but little else.