In June of 2001, Wilco—then consisting of Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Jay Bennett and Glenn Kotche—had just spent more than a year holed up in their Chicago studio working on their fourth full-length, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. After a recording process that was marked with lineup changes and in-fighting, the band delivered the finished album to their label, Reprise Records, who were less than pleased with what they heard, worried that it lacked mainstream appeal.
It wasn't the first time this had happened to Wilco, either. Two years earlier, in 1999, they'd just finished recording Summerteeth, and after submitting it to Reprise, they were told it lacked a single that was suitable for radio play. Dutifully, and most obviously against their better judgment, they turned around and remixed album-opener "Can't Stand It," making it shorter and adding elements (bells?) they thought would make it more appealing to a wider audience. The album was well received by critics and diehards, but less so by the general public, and it failed to outsell its less-hyped predecessor, 1997's Being There.
So when Wilco's A&R rep, Mio Vukovic, asked if they'd consider making some changes to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to address the label's concerns, the band flatly declined. Reprise eventually agreed to let them out of their contract and give them the rights to the album. There's some confusion over exactly how they wound up at this point: some reports state that the band paid $50,000, while others claim Wilco got the rights for nothing.
Either way, by mid-August news broke that Wilco was officially without a label, and a bidding war began immediately. They fielded offers from pretty much every label under the sun, and there's even been talk that they were contacted by Reprise about working out a new deal because they'd been killed in the press for so badly mistreating a band that was clearly in it for the long haul—steady earners, big on touring, and respected by anyone who knew anything. Eventually, Wilco inked a deal with Nonesuch Records, a label known, to me anyway, for low-risk adult-contemporary rock and pop—some weird mix of Shawn Colvin and Randy Newman, but that's beside the point.
The kicker here, of course, and the reason this is everyone's favorite industry story of at least the past decade, is that their original label, Reprise, was owned by AOL Time Warner, who also happened to own Nonesuch. So AOL Time Warner essentially paid for the album twice. Chump change for them, obviously, but a symbolic victory and supreme validation for everyone who'd been complaining about the shortsightedness of major labels in recent years. It was, simply put, the great rock and roll swindle of the aughts, and it was immensely satisfying.
But to be fair, things have changed more this decade than they had in any decade since the birth of rock and roll, and the very act of being a music fan in 2009 bears almost no resemblance to the same act as it was performed in 1999. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a real turning point in a number of ways. Aside from it driving home the idea that the major labels were growing more and more out of touch than ever, the album also marked what was a massive shift in how we heard new music. This was the heyday of Napster, remember, and signs that illegal downloading was going to be a big problem, or at least a big game-changer, were everywhere. Right around the time Reprise rejected YHF, tracks from the album started popping up online, and before long, all the real die-hard music nerds had heard it in its entirety. In the time before they signed with Nonesuch, Wilco caught wind of the leak and decided to post a high-quality stream of the record on their website, allegedly as a way of discouraging fans from listening to low-quality MP3s. There's probably some truth to this, but it would be naive to think they, or at least their management, weren't using the stream as a way to drum up some additional publicity at a time when they were looking to sign a potentially lucrative record deal.
The band's motives aside, Yankee Hotel Foxtrotwas the first record I remember knowing, from start to finish, long before it was officially released. It signaled, if not marked, the end of the release date as a meaningful thing, as something to look forward to. It also helped provide a new school of thought about how to combat file-sharing, separating people like Wilco, who seemed to think everything would work out in the end if the music itself was actually good, and people like Metallica, whose greedy, knee-jerk reaction to Napster is now the stuff of legend. It's a complicated subject, of course, especially for young bands, but I knew Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a full six months before it was released, and I currently own store-bought copies of it on CD and vinyl. There's a very good chance I'm going to buy my first-born child a onesie with the words "Wilco Loves Your Baby" on it. This is not meaningless. It can't be.
"Um, Great, but is the record any good?"
Yes, the record is very good.
In much the same way Wilco's business dealings represented the breakdown and rebuilding of how the industry, and the world, would interact with music, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a long, complicated exercise in the deconstruction of the music itself. And it's something they'd been working toward, slowly, since they formed in 1994.
Tweedy got his start in the legendary alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, which he co-fronted with Jay Farrar, who would later go on to form Son Volt. That first Wilco album, A.M., was basically an Uncle Tupelo record without any songs by Farrar. It was mostly pleasant, occasionally very good, but ultimately somewhat forgettable cookie-cutter alt-country stuff. Next came Being There, a sprawling double-album that never should have been a double album but was nonetheless full of very good bar-ready roots-rock and gentle, country-inspired ballads. There are hints on Being There—"Misunderstood," â�‚��“Sunken Treasure"—of the growing ambition and sophistication that would come to define the next few years of their career, but length aside, it was still a pretty easy record to deal with. Their third album, Summerteeth, was a dense, labored-over classic pop record that revealed an increased focus on layering. Keyboards swirled endlessly, harmonies were more intricate (and more plentiful), and the general tone was more serious.
For five years and three albums, Wilco steadily added more and more elements to their sound. When the time came to make Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they realized they'd reached a limit with Summerteeth, that they couldn't just keep on adding and adding forever. So they wrote eleven more songs, packed them full of everything you could think of—guitar, drums, bass, vocals, more guitar, keyboards, short wave radio, unidentifiable percussion, assorted blips and beeps—and then proceeded to take it all apart, piece by piece, scattering different components all around and rebuilding the from the ground up. The result isn't exactly minimalist—after one close listen on headphones, you know there's shit going on everywhere, yet one of the album's greatest feats is managing never to sound cluttered, always allowing a certain amount of negative space to offset the positive space. It's never been clear to me who's to thank for that—Tweedy? Bennett? Jim O'Rourke, who was brought in to mix the record at the last minute?—because it's far from unimportant. Simply put, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot doesn't sound like any other records, and I've always thought that was something that had a lot more to do with how people reacted to it than anyone ever seems to mention.
By 2002, Tweedy had been writing and releasing songs for 15 years, and even if, for argument's sake, we say he really only hit his stride somewhere around the end of Uncle Tupelo, we were certainly no strangers to his considerable talents. The songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot have never really even struck me as being that much better, across the board, than any of the other songs he'd written—a fact that becomes even clearer if you've ever heard him play any of them solo, on acoustic guitar. But to hear them rendered in the very peculiar way they appear on YHF, it's unsettling and exciting—the notion that rock and roll could sound like something you'd never heard before, while at the same time not necessarily even straying from traditional song structure is one you don't get to contemplate more than a couple times throughout your life.
Just moments into the album-opening "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," swelling keyboards are joined by aimless, then steady, drums, which then promptly disappear, replaced by what sounds like a ringing telephone, maybe a piano, and then, unmistakably, and acoustic guitar. It's familiar, but it's seems out of place. Then the bass kicks in, hard and pronounced. The drums come back, tense and with great purpose. By the time we hear Tweedy sing the lines "I am an American aquarium drinker/ I assassin down the avenue," everything feels so strange, you almost don't realize you have not the slightest idea what the fuck he's talking about. This goes on for just shy of seven minutes—you get shakers, a big piano melody, lots of fuzz, part of the chorus from another song on the record sung quietly beneath blaring noise—and the only way I've ever been able to describe how it makes me feel is drunk. Like, late-night, on the verge of vomiting, but still pretty sure I've just discovered the answers to everything drunk. Think back to the song's first line, to the other lyrics about letting something good get away from you, and one wonders if it was done on purpose, especially given Tweedy's struggles with addiction that would become news just a few years later.
And it's not difficult to read the rest of the album in a similar light. On the misleadingly upbeat "Kamera," Tweedy sings, "I need a camera to my eye/To my eye, reminding/Which lies I've been hiding." At first it's just a vague acknowledgment of guilt, but then it's a cry for help: "Phone my family/Tell them I'm lost on the sidewalk/And no, it's not ok." Effective lines made even more effective when you realize how far you can take the idea of being lost: sad lyrics on an upbeat song, plainspoken (literally almost spoken) vocals taking center stage on an album full of almost unidentifiable noises.
"Radio Cure" brings more confessions: "Cheer up, honey, I hope you can/There is something wrong with me," while "War on War" offers the album's first sign that things might someday improve: "You have to learn how to die if you wanna be alive." But by "Ashes of American Flags," he's back to harping on his own failings again with a line that works better in a song than it would in a conversation: "All my lies are only wishes."
The album's most upbeat songs appear back to back: "Heavy Metal Drummer" and "I'm the Man Who Loves You." Heavy Metal is a mostly lighthearted track that also states very simply: "I miss the innocence I've known." "I'm the Man Who Loves You" is on the lighter side as well, though it's still about not quite being able to say something that needs to be said.
On "Reservations," the album's final track, Tweedy speaks his mind more clearly than he's managed to at any point, and it's striking in its honesty, especially considering it's about being dishonest.
How can I convince you it's me I don't like,
And not be so indifferent to the look in our eyes,
When I've always been distant,
And I've always told lies for love?
I'm bound by these choices, so hard to make. I'm bound by the feeling, so easy to fake. None of this is real enough to take me from you.
Oh I've got reservations
About so many things,
But not about you.
It's the crux of the album: Tweedy acknowledging that he's done wrong, but stopping short of apologizing for it. Instead, he cites his certainty about his feelings as a way to rationalize his actions. Then he asks the question, "How can I get closer and be further away from the truth that proves it's beautiful to lie?," and it's probably the album's single best line. He's done what he was hoping to do back in "I'm the Man That Loves You," and there's a great sense of relief. But you also know he's crossed a line: by wondering aloud if it's better to continue lying for the sake of love, he's put all his cards on the table, and it's not difficult to imagine it ending badly.
This is why, at the end of the day (or at the end of the decade), you can't help but talk about the stories within Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as well as the stories surrounding it. Because they're the same, really: It's a record about knowing something has to change, knowing that if things just continue the way they are, they'll eventually just stop existing. Even saying nothing of what happened after, there's something beautiful about recognizing when you've hit rock bottom.
Haha.. we were kidding about all those other ones. This is obviously, objectively, the best record
ever of the decade.
Dec 23, 2009
Breakup records should not be this good.
Dec 23, 2009
With just ten songs, Arcade Fire successfully mourned the loss of multiple relatives, helped us discover a new way of dealing with adversity, and changed the face of indie-rock.
Dec 21, 2009
With the music industry in a perpetual downward spiral for much of the decade, it became difficult to blame bands for licensing their songs to corporations. When the money paid for records as brilliant as this one, it was impossible.
Dec 18, 2009
Once upon a time, the person we now know as the single most irritating figure in all of popular music was the most impressive artist the game had ever seen. It was fun while it lasted.
Dec 17, 2009
It was the most talked-about record of 2006, but when no one could quite make sense of it, they stopped trying. Doesn't make it less brilliant, but more.
Dec 16, 2009