Monday, March 12, 2007

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

I've had this album in my collection for five years now and it's just been waiting for the right moment to make itself indispensable. That moment has finally arrived. Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot often sounds like a lost late-Beatles album, which I guess shouldn't really come as a surprise, since the AllMusic guide informs me that the album was mixed by "mixer/multi-instrumentalist/'fifth Beatle' Jim O'Rourke."

The songwriting is held together by a general theme of wry heartbreak. The sound is very unusual, warm acoustic melodies laced throughout with often-dissonant sonic augmentation. When I first tried to listen to this album five years ago, the general dissonance of the sonic experimentation was just off-putting enough that I didn't hear through to the genius melodies and warm timbres. Now that I can hear them, I think this is a heartachingly beautiful album - possibly my favorite "breakup" album to date.

Highlights for me are the subversively lovable "Kamera", the strangely soulful "Jesus, Etc.", the danceable "Heavy Metal Drummer," and the charming major-minor "I'm the Man Who Loves You."

But I don't really recommend listening to these songs individually. This album's true genius comes from the fact that it expertly navigates every strange nuance of emotion that accompanies a heartbreak of any kind. And because of this, the album works best when listened to in its entirety, so that the false toughness of the opening track ("I Am Trying To Break Your Heart") gives way to the sweet vulnerability of "Kamera" ("Phone my family/tell them I'm lost/and no it's not okay,") before delving even deeper into the bleak despondency of "Radio Cure" ("Cheer up honey/ I hope you can/There is something wrong with me.") From here, the album shifts to a theme of getting over it, from the morbid rebirth of "War on War" ("You have to learn how to die/if you want to be alive,") to the weary reassurance of "Jesus, Etc." (Jesus, don't cry/You can rely on me honey/You can come by any time you want/I'll be around,") to the wispy hope of "Ashes of American Flags" ("I want a good life/with a nose for things/a fresh wind and bright sky/to enjoy my suffering".) Then it's time for bittersweet nostalgia to kick in with "Heavy Metal Drummer" ("I miss the innocence I've known/Playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned") and "I'm the Man Who Loves You" ("If I could, you know I would/just hold your hand and you'd understand/I'm the man who loves you.") Finally, there's a shift to overcoming anger on "Pot Kettle Black" ("I'm tied in a knot/But I'm not gonna get caught/Calling a pot kettle black") and grieving the loss on "Poor Places" ("My jaw's been broken/My heart is wrapped in ice/My fangs have been pulled/But I really want to see you tonight".) And finally, the album ends in a kind of heart-wrenching, self-blaming acceptance with "Reservations" ("How can I convince you it's me I don't like/and not be so indifferent to the look in your eyes/when I've always been distant/and I've always told lies for love/I've got reservations about so many things/But not about you/It's not about you."

Much like a good breakup, this is one remarkably complex album. Give it a listen. And if it's not time in your life for it right now, hold on to it. In my recent experience, it'll always be there for you when you need it.

Oh, and: Head over to Wilco's official Web site to listen to an entire live set from the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC last October. SO SO SO SO good.

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