Going back to his roots
One of the most incredible things about Jeff Tweedy with Wilco was how he not only knew how to get out of the long shadow of his first band, Uncle Tupelo, but how to overcome it completely, reinventing himself several times along the way. And it wasn't just any old band, because Uncle Tupelo was something special; a whole movement had formed around them, the alt-country movement, in which they even gave the name, with one of their álbum titles, to the magazine that was to become the bible of the genre: No Depression. So one of the first things Tweedy did with Wilco was to move further and further away from the country label, first with the expansive rock of Being There, then with the pop luminosity of Summerteeth and later with the experimental fire of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. So it is curious to see him, now on the 12th album of his career, returning to his origins, recording a country rock album that makes no secret of being country rock, with its pedal steel, its country feel and a title that doesn't hide its roots, Cruel Country.
It has taken a pandemic - and Tweedy having had all the time in the world to quietly devote to writing - for Wilco to get back to playing their songs live in the studio, with simple arrangements and, usually, on the first take. Another thing that is noticeable in this time of forced hiatus is the number of songs, 21, totalling more than an hour and a quarter in length.
The album opens with a phrase - "Dangerous dreams have been detected / Streaming over the southern border" that warns us that the title has a double meaning, that the country of the title is about the genre of music but also about the difficult moment the USA is going through. In the second song, the title track, we can already see Tweedy's ambivalence towards it, "I love my country like a little boy, red, white and blue. I love my country, stupid and cruel". All this with his Gibson J-200 acoustic as the main skeleton and a band devoted to the song, with simple and spartan arrangements, a pedal steel here and there, a pounding rhythm and a few possibilities for Nels Cline to shine on his 1960 Fender Jazzmaster.
Some have compared it to Being There, due to the fact that it is a double album, but that had explosions of Stonian rock & roll, songs close to power pop and brilliant experiments like Misunderstood, while here everything is more homogeneous, acoustic mid tempos, even in the songs that are more out of the norm, like Falling Apart, almost rockabilly, with a lot of 'twang' and Cline on baritone guitar emulating James Burton, or Mystery Binds, where country touches are mixed with an almost psychedelic feeling that reminds us of Buffalo Springfield. Then the album closes with The Plains, a folk track with little more than Tweedy and his acoustic guitar, coloured by what sounds like a Spanish guitar.
No one can doubt that this is a good Wilco album, possibly the best since The Whole Love, but I think it would have benefited from a bit of editing or, had they wanted to keep this length, a bit more variety. But these are small complaints, when we get a good sample of songs from a craftsman as great as Tweedy who leaves us with wonders like Many Worlds, a song of almost eight minutes in which a spooky first part with an autumnal piano gives way to the only 'jam' of the whole album, with Cline showing all his class. We can also highlight A Lifetime To Find; pure country rock, with Cline playing a guitar part that could have been played by Clarence White himself; or the beautiful Tired Of Taking It Out On You.
In short, this is an album with which Wilco and Tweedy return to their origins in alt country, once again demonstrating that Jeff Tweedy's creative well is far from running dry.