Wilco rediscovers his original DNA on Cruel Country: Album Review

“I love my country like a little boy,” sings Jeff Tweedy on Cruel Country, the title track of Wilco’s twelfth studio album. “I love my country, stupid and cruel.” That sentiment rears its head through Cruel Country, a sprawling, cozy double LP. Tweedy channels his admiration for America’s promise into warm, welcoming vistas that deeply revere traditional folk and country music. But Tweedy peppers these pieces of Americana with poignant reminders of the nation’s complicated history and enduring injustices; Beauty and decay are inseparable for him.

According to Tweedy, “Country” adheres to a loose conceptual thread about America’s development, though one has to squint to follow it. But the thematic anchors are articulated with crisp clarity thanks to the sustained poignancy of Tweedy’s writing. He has plenty of room to manoeuvre; At 21 songs and 77 minutes, this is Wilco’s longest album (17 seconds after “Being There”). “Country” does not hold the high ambitions of many recent double albums; it’s not an eclectic exploration of styles like Big Thief’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, nor is it a dense conceptual statement like Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morals & the Big Steppers.” Rather, Cruel Country simply aims to answer the question, “What if a regular Wilco album took longer to finish?”

If that’s a difficult prospect for the Wilco-Averses, the band’s supporters will find much to cheer about. “Country” marks the band’s most explicit embrace of their country roots since their inception. This long-standing strain in the band’s DNA has gone dormant, a skillset that’s only been sporadically gestured to since they dosed it with lively psychedelic-pop in 1999’s “Summerteeth.” How deeply rooted the new material really is in the country genre will be debatable (to contextualize it using the band’s already existing spectrum, the twang units of “Country” are somewhere between “AM” and “Being There”) ; Many of these songs move on the edge of the genre.

Genre aside, “Country” often feels like a newly reinvigorated band. As recently as the last month, it would not have been unreasonable to assume that Wilco would wind up; In the last five years, Tweedy has released four solo albums, but only one with Wilco, 2019’s Ode to Joy. Even “Joy,” feather-light in texture and disposition, arguably shared more connective tissue with Tweedy’s solo releases than Wilco’s own. “Country” bucks this trend; These recordings are mostly live recordings, giving even the simplest of compositions a springy dynamic.

The clearest precursor is “Sky Blue Sky,” the point where Wilco eschewed the frosty experimentalism of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost Is Born” in favor of something more rooted, spacious, and bright. That sun pervades Cruel Country. The warm and empathetic “All Across the World” could easily slip onto a “Summerteeth”-heavy setlist; “Falling Apart (Right Now)” borrows from Wilco’s pop sensibility, pairing a friendly leap with Tweedy’s tongue-in-cheek pleading for a partner to counteract his own instability. Even when the material is more severely crooked, the arrangements mask it; “Hearts Hard to Find” is a somber internal cross-examination (“I don’t mind if certain people die, I can’t cry… There’s something wrong with me, maybe I’m just bad”) beneath its bittersweet framing. “Hints” distils the political moment as succinctly as any song’s lyrics in recent memory (“There’s no middle when the other side would rather kill than compromise”) but ultimately puts a hopeful face (“Focus your mind on the fight and keep your strength hand in mine”).

A handful of outliers reinforce the consistency of the balance sheet. The edgy energy of “The Empty Condor” shakes things up early on; “Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull” is lighter, wimpier, and altogether weirder than its peers. “Many Worlds” rides a refreshing, expansive jam at nearly eight minutes. Still, nothing throws the album off track like “Bull Black Nova” once did. A few more stylistic diversions would have charged the album heavily in its sleepy sections.

Cruel Country captures a band absolutely sure of their status; It does a handful of things very well, and does those things repeatedly with few variances. As is usual with double albums, online discussions will swirl about which songs need to be cut to make a hypothetical, airtight 10-12 song tracklist. Such arguments will be fair on the merits while missing the point of the record, which is to bask in the amiable ease of this world. Those looking for suspense can find it in the nooks and crannies of the album, where Tweedy pokes at the scar tissue of a country he is deeply conflicted about, one that has given him everything he ever wanted, but still is the source of so much pain for so many. You might not notice it at first; He does it with a smile.

https://variety.com/2022/music/album-reviews/wilco-cruel-country-album-review-1235278810/ Wilco rediscovers his original DNA on Cruel Country: Album Review

Charles Jones

Charles Jones is a 24ssports U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Charles Jones joined 24ssports in 2021 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing: charlesjones@24ssports.com.

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