I have struggled a lot with post-Sky Blue Sky Wilco. Struggled is perhaps too strong a word but I’ve definitely felt a little underwhelmed. You could argue that every Wilco album between their debut and their 2009 self-titled was a big departure from the previous record. (Excepting Mermaid Avenue of course.) But it’s felt to me like every record from then on hasn’t been a departure, that they’ve settled into a sound. Last year’s Cruel Country was a departure from this in that they (sort of) returned to their roots, but it didn’t feel as much of a departure. But, in preparing to review this new record, I went back and listened to the entire catalogue for the first time since last summer, and I found a couple of those records I thought I didn’t love growing on me. I guess it’s familiarity – as I really didn’t listen to any of them much after I reviewed them – but some of them struck me as being better than I remembered. (Particularly The Whole Love which I didn’t review at the time for some reason.) I suspect some of this is just age, I’m softening as a critic. But I also wonder if I’ve been a little hard on them as they’ve settled into a particular sound in the the last decade and a half.
Cousin announces itself as a return to Wilco’s, um, “classic” sound with “Infinite Surprise,” which feels like a massive departure (for them) from Cruel Country. But that’s a little bit of a trick, as Wilco’s sound at this point is all on a spectrum and there are tracks here that could be on that record, perhaps with some tweaking. (The recording process was, I understand, very different for this one.)
Tweedy is still mostly singing in this hushed style that he’s had for at least a decade. I wonder if that’s all he can do now, but I’ve seen him sing live as recently as last summer and he seemed to be able to pull off the old songs. He’s less hushed here than he has been lately, but it’s still something that I can’t say I love.
I genuinely like Tweedy as a songwriter and I find I usually like his songs even when I wish the arrangements were more interesting or, at least, more of a departure from what they’ve been doing for the last 14 years. I like his songs so much I have trouble being truly critical. I also tie up my ideas of his songs with how the band is performing them so much that I’m not sure I can tell you which is my favourite set of his songs. I can tell you which albums I like the most but is it just because of the songs? Not really. This certainly not his best set, but I’ve felt that way about a bunch of these recent records. And, honestly, Cruel Country, might stand out songwriting-wise even if it’s among my least favourite of their records.
The arrangements are much stranger and less traditional than the previous record, though that’s a relative thing. They rarely approach the weirdness of their musical peak and when they do, it’s mostly in the back of the mix. The fact that they are doing that stuff again is nice, at least for me, but it is par for the recent course, given that they do not want this weirdness to hit you in the face, most of the time. Are these the most adventurous arrangements since Star Wars? Some of them sure are. But those of us who compare these records to their late ’90s and early aughts records might still find them too subtle. And there are songs that do sound like they could be on Cruel Country with some changes.
I have a hard time being too critical of this band. They are among my favourites. But I still feel like they haven’t made anything truly great in a long time. (16 years.) That’s fine, as that’s what happens with most bands. But, aside from a few album release announcements, I haven’t been surprised by them in a while (8 years ago). And I sort of miss that. (I still enjoy this, though.)