On the band's latest album, The Whole Love, they are at play within familiar territory but still deliver something new and catchy.
Wilco: The Whole Love
The Whole Love
Playing fast and loose with the genre for which you're known, while still creating songs with mass appeal, is a surefire way of getting your band compared with The Beatles. When Radiohead locked themselves away in a studio, only to emerge months later with the breathtaking glitch opus Kid A, comparisons were made with the recording of the Fab Four's equally singular Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Even the hip-hop duo OutKast faced the analogy, after producing a double album packed with songs that were both tirelessly experimental and catchy enough to be played on the radio.
Wilco, who began life as a straightforward alt-country outfit in the mid-1990s, have been sprinkling their records with synths and sonic trickery for a decade. Now on their eighth album, the Chicagoans may have had a more protracted metamorphosis than the Liverpool band, but that won't spare them from facing the comparison. It's not just the title, The Whole Love, that seems to bear The Beatles' fingerprints, but many of the tracks contained within.
Take the lilting Sunloathe, with a gorgeously restrained guitar part that owes more than a little to George Harrison's finest moment, Something. Later on, Capitol City breezily waltzes out of the speakers, complete with verses confidently silly enough to be sung by Paul McCartney. The song even ends with the chimes of church bells, which are more than a little reminiscent of the found sounds that pepper the Fab Four's A Day in the Life. The retro influences continue on the lead single I Might, where a gloriously loose and fuzzy rhythm section backs up a chirping 1960s organ, and the singer Jeff Tweedy boisterously attacks the "it's all right" chorus.
But the loving tributes to vintage rock and pop never take Wilco too far away from familiar territory. Dawned On Me and Born Alone show the band in jaunty singalong mode, with giant hooks and few distractions. The album is also interspersed with the kind of haunting ballads that few other bands do so well. Perhaps a reference to Nick Drake's Pink Moon, delicate picking and soaring strings make up the reflective and sorrowful Black Moon, but there's an added touch of Americana too. The album's high point comes right at its conclusion, the impossibly lovely One Sunday Morning is 12 minutes of slow-burning piano, a simple guitar refrain and hushed vocals. Far from growing tiresome during its lengthy stay, you might even miss it when it's gone.
For a band that once included 15 minutes of synthesised noise on an album of country-tinged rock (Less Than You Think from 2004's A Ghost is Born) and admitted that "99 per cent of [their] fans wouldn't like the song", The Whole Love sees Wilco exercising uncharacteristic restraint. In fact, some will argue there's a little too much holding back here. This is not the sound of a band breaking new ground, but rather one taking a nostalgic holiday. But, like The Beatles and the long line of innovators who followed them, Wilco sound at their best not when simply trying out anything that feels new, but when channelling what they've learnt back into what they already do so well.