The best-kept secret about Wilco has always been the band’s sense of humor. Amid the turmoil-ridden documentaries and record label-defying experimentalism, there’s always been an open-door policy to silliness and self-deprecation.
“Are those beer cans I keep hearing?” Jeff Tweedy asked the crowd during a solo set at the Bijou Theatre in 2007. When a fan offered him one, Tweedy sarcastically replied, “The rehab was in the news. I’m sure you saw it. But thanks for trying to knock me off the wagon.”
As the face and voice of Wilco, Tweedy has been routinely cast as a tortured genius or, worse, as a megalomaniac. But he’s also funny and warm, unafraid to poke fun at his own checkered past. Unfortunately, the media’s more curmudgeonly caricature of Tweedy has gradually informed its view of Wilco, consistently overlooking the fun. This decade, it’s quite common to see the group referred to as “The Most Important Band in America,” a ridiculous title that implies Wilco is trying to change the world, when all they’ve ever wanted to do is have a blast playing music.
Chapter One: Jeff vs. Jay
Wilco’s first several years of existence were, in some ways, defined by Tweedy’s epic struggles with a couple of guys named Jay. In 1995, there weren’t many people willing to call Wilco the best offshoot of Uncle Tupelo, let alone the best band in the country. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Illinois-based Uncle Tupelo had laid the groundwork for the alt-country movement, led by the combined songwriting craft of Tweedy and the group’s ostensible frontman, Jay Farrar. As the dramatic telling of the story goes, Farrar quit the band in 1994 when he felt that Tweedy was usurping too much of his authority. Uncle Tupelo then splintered into two new groups, Tweedy’s Wilco and Farrar’s Son Volt. With a supposed blood feud in the balance, the music press rallied behind Son Volt’s first album over Wilco’s high-spirited debut A.M.
Chapter Two: Jeff vs. Jay II
In between A.M. and 1996’s stellar double-disc Being There, Wilco added keyboardist/guitarist Jay Bennett to the lineup, setting the stage for another power struggle. In many ways, Bennett was instrumental in crafting Wilco’s sunnier, power-pop sound on 1999’s Summerteeth and the superb Mermaid Avenue sessions with Billy Bragg. But once again, the more fun Wilco tried to have, the more their reputation seemed to defy them. As best observed in the 2002 documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Bennett wasn’t always the most popular guy in the studio, and the band soon elected to cut ties with him. While the critics focused their attention on Tweedy’s supposed thirst for power, though, they nearly overlooked some of the best—and least complex—music of the band’s career.
Chapter Three: Yankee Doodles
Sometimes, a black cloud can sprout a rainbow. The 2002 breakthrough album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would eventually sell more than twice as many copies as Summerteeth or Being There, but it would also sealed Wilco’s identity, for better or worse, as the Most Important Band in America. The additions of producer Jim O’Rourke and drummer Glenn Kotche led the band in some exciting, experimental new directions on YHF. These were, however, still pop songs at their core. Nonetheless, the execs at Warner Bros. hated what they heard, leading to the very well-documented rejection and eventual re-acquisition (by subsidiary label Nonesuch) of what might be the most critically acclaimed album of the past decade.
Chapter Four: Wilco, the Band
Cooped up in their Chicago loft, the members of Wilco have just celebrated their 15th anniversary by putting the finishing touches on their seventh album, due out in June. Early reports indicate that it’s a return to the cerebral, electro-folk-rock stylings that made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a classic. Feist is making a cameo appearance, as well, and if the lyrics to new track “Wilco, the Song” are any indication, Tweedy is still funnier than we’re supposed to know:
Are you under the impression
This isn’t your life?
Do you dabble in depression?
Someone twisting a knife in your back?
Are you being attacked?
Oh this is a fact,
That you need to know...
Wilco will love you, Baby!