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.