Album Review: Wilco—Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Some records are terrible from the first listen. Some take several hearings to assess. Very few are classics on the first time around. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one of these. It’s a rock record which stands with the greats, such as Blood on the Tracks, Revolver, Exile on Main Street and Who’s Next. And all this from a band which, to me at the time, came out of the blue.

Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, the core of Wilco in 2001, met in Chicago after the release of A.M., Wilco’s first album, born from the ashes of Tweedy’s previous alt-country band, Uncle Tupelo. Tweedy was a native of Belleville, Illinois, a rural town on the outskirts of St. Louis; Bennett grew up in Rolling Meadows, a suburb of Chicago. Both found in each other similar tastes and ideas about record production, and once Bennett formally joined the band, began immediately collaborating on new material. Being There, Wilco’s second album, was a sprawling double CD of alt-country, ballads, rockers, epic statements and quiet contemplation. Having created this crown jewel, Bennett and Tweedy reversed course and went for psychedelic, lush pop sounds on the next album, Summerteeth. It too was a classic of its type.

By the time Wilco began recording its fourth album, however, Tweedy had grown restless. He’d become friends with another recording artist and producer, Jim O’Rourke, and had collaborated with him and his friend and drummer Glenn Kotche under the name Loose Fur. The results so pleased Tweedy that when Wilco’s drummer, Ken Coomer, failed to produce the percussive sound he was looking for, the group fired him and brought Kotche into the sessions and then the band.

Tweedy and Bennett argued over their ideas of what the final record should sound like, as shown in a particularly wrenching scene in the Sam Jones documentary of the group, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. The two are shown fighting over a ten-second sound transition, with Tweedy losing patience with Bennett’s meticulousness. A compromise was reached when Jim O’Rourke was invited to mix “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” with the result impressing Bennett to the extent that he agreed to let O’Rourke mix the entire record. The final album was scheduled to be released on Reprise Records, the band’s label, on September 11th, 2001.

…This did not happen.

Reprise’s executives didn’t like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. They felt it was too depressing and wouldn’t sell, particularly in light of the 9/11 attacks. So they released the band from their contract, at first in exchange for the group paying them $50,000 for the rights to the album. Shortly before the contract was finalized, this was changed to Reprise’s giving them the rights to release the album for free.1 Wilco began streaming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for free on its website on September 18th, 2001, to a phenomenal response. Wilco was offered a place on several different record labels before signing with Nonesuch, like Reprise a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, in an ironic deal for the band. By this time, Jay Bennett had been fired, but his contributions are very much felt on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, released on April 23rd, 2002.

The album opens with the groundbreaking anthem I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, one of three songs solely credited to Jeff Tweedy as songwriter. It begins with throbbing synthesizers and insistent drumming, which unexpectedly fades out and in to a sound like bells (actually crotales, played by Kotche). The drums return, joined by bass and guitars, steadying into a foundation. Then Jeff Tweedy begins to sing, and everything comes together in a rush of loveliness.

I am an American aquarium drinker, I assassin down the avenue

I’m hiding out in the big city blinking, what was I thinking when I let go of you…

Tweedy’s voice is one of the greats of rock and roll: simple, direct, to the point, but with a sad beauty apparent in its twang. It seizes your attention, and the band behind keeps the song focused, with arresting instrumentation between the verses. Lines of Tweedy’s lyrics float like poetry over everything, singing a song of love.

Let’s undress just like cross-eyed strangers

I wanna glide through the brown eyes dreaming

I wanna hold you in the bible-black pre-dawn

Then I fell asleep and the city kept blinking

I am trying to break your heart….

By the time he sings the line for the final time and the band plays in a mix of pianos, drums and synthesizers triumphant, ending in a weird mix of echoing vocals, humming violins and shorts bursts of guitar feedback, the goal is achieved. My heart’s been broken.

This isn’t the sole triumph on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, however. Every song is beautiful, including the next one, Kamera. Originally it had a much louder arrangement, with buzzing guitars; but the one here is acoustic, with beautiful harmonies from Tweedy and Bennett. The tone is one of quiet desperation. “Phone my family, tell ‘em I’m lost on the sidewalk; and no, it’s not OK,” Tweedy sings, seemingly resigned. This, as most of the remaining songs, is credited to Tweedy/Bennett as co-music writers. Tweedy, however, penned all of the lyrics.

Radio Cure returns to the burbling synthesizer sounds present on the first track, here less dramatic and seeming to highlight the “silvery stars” which fill the singer’s mind. “There is something wrong with me,” Tweedy sings, again sounding sad rather than angry, bemoaning his pain rather than fighting it. A lyric like “Picking apples for the kings and queens of things I’ve never seen” is nonsensical, but fits with the fairytale atmosphere, ending in “Distance has no way of making love understandable.”

War on War, while a catchy acoustic ballad with some eerily apt lyrics which seem to focus on 9/11 (“moving forward through flaming doors”—but, remember, the album had been completed before the attacks), seems less than the other songs here, at least to me. Still, the chorus—“You’ve got to learn how to die if you wanna wanna be alive”—is inspiring, and hopeful. Again, the harmonies and the stop-and-start rhythm of the band is fantastic. Jesus, Etc., the ballad which follows, is another triumph, a declaration of love and support. The “tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad sad songs” sends more shivers down listeners’ backs in light of the Twin Towers. The violin line throughout gives the song a lift, and Tweedy’s voice hits one in the gut with his tenderness.

Ashes of American Flags is another stunner. Yes, I know I keep coming back to 9/11, but it’s truly spooky how much the title resonates with that event. Still, Tweedy’s reverie about his pain—“I’m down on my hands and knees every time the doorbell rings”; “I know I would die if I could come back new”—cut right to my heart. I always believed that this and Radio Cure were inspired by his migraines, although I don’t know for certain. The ten-second link between this and the next song, Heavy Metal Drummer, sounds like a dream and is truly inspired (the final mix by Jim O’Rourke works perfectly).

Heavy Metal Drummer was the hit and deserved to be, a paean to rock and roll performers everywhere, the second song composed entirely by Tweedy. Inspired by his concerts at Laclede’s Landing in St. Louis, he sings of the “innocence [he’s] known; playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.” He may have lost his girl, but he still has his music.

I’m The Man Who Loves You has always sounded like one of Mike Nesmith’s songs from the Monkees, a catchy tune about writing a letter to a lost love, perhaps the girl in Heavy Metal Drummer. A hint of this was foreshadowed at the beginning in I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. Tweedy’s lyrics almost stumble over each other in the rapidity with which he sings the lines. Pot Kettle Black is another triumph of harmonies, acoustic guitars and aching loss: “It’s become so obvious, you are so oblivious to yourself.” One wonders if Tweedy was thinking of Bennett when he wrote that couplet.

Poor Places is the penultimate anthem on the record, with lyrics and sounds which dream of reconciliation in the midst of loss. The only three musicians on this track are the members of Loose Fur: Tweedy, O’Rourke and Kotche. One wonders what the rest of Wilco, particularly Bennett, were thinking, but the result is gorgeous. The track ends in a blitz of feedback and a sample from The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations, an album which had captured Tweedy’s attention and which helped to inspire much of the sound of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A woman’s voice echoing the title over and over again with ever-growing static behind her, abruptly cutting off to silence, is brilliant and unnerving.2

Reservations, the final song, written by Tweedy, begs for reconciliation in the light of his shortcomings. “I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you,” he pleads to the sound of squeaking swings and more echoing feedback. The sound resulting is a rainy day dirge, but one of beauty and heartache, like so much of this record.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the best rock record I’ve heard in this millennium, and deserves a place in everyone’s album collection. Let me just close with this paragraph from a novel I wrote about a woman who plays bass and forms a local band, something I’d always wanted to do but never quite got around to it. I was in the middle of writing this book when I first heard about Wilco and bought the album, around the spring of 2002 or so. I immediately wrote both of them into the narrative, particularly since the other main protagonist was named Jeff. Here’s Anne’s reaction upon hearing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for the first time.

I went out to the car, waving goodnight one last time to everyone on the porch, and looked up out of curiosity at what I now recognized as the attic window. Although there was no shade, I couldn’t see anything but darkness, which was just as well. I got in my car, shut the door and turned on the dome light, fishing out my iPod from my bag of presents. I searched the index until I found Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, hit Play and turned the light out again. As I drove through the maze of one-way streets leading back to Chippewa, I heard a strange collection of sounds, starting with synth noises and drumming which seemed about to form into a melody, then dissolved into the sound of bells and random noise….Just as I was thinking of giving up, it jelled again into a melodic sequence with piano, guitar, drums and minimal bass accompaniment. Then Jeff Tweedy began to sing, and I really started to listen. His
voice wasn’t a smooth or professional one, but it sounded more real than half the singers out there, and it could handle a melody just fine. He seemed to glide through the lyrics, which at first seemed almost as random as the opening arrangement; then I realized that they were about his relationship with a woman, and I was mesmerized. I kept listening as I drove down Kingshighway and then turned west on I-44, toward the suburbs and away from the city, from the train yards, pre-war houses, billboards and natural gas towers into the world of office buildings,
townhouses and mall fronts. “I am trying to break your heart,” Jeff Tweedy sang, and the music played in an almost painful sweetness, as I drove away from the young people who were talking, eating, drinking, singing, using drugs, playing guitar and poker, and having sex late into the night, and toward the land of the middle-aged who were doing most of the same things but enjoying them so much less. I drove and listened to Wilco, getting through about half the record by the time I got home, and by that time, I had fallen in love.