The number of alt-country releases in the last ten years that have been treated with a modicum of high intensity anticipation, let alone following through on making a seismic change in the genre, are minimal. Folk has undergone a complete refurbishment, due in the macro to Devendra Banhart and his merry band of Gold Coast freaks and in the micro to the small idea that maybe the back porch wasn’t such an unhip place after all. Country, as well, has kept its promise of world dominating pop metamorphosis, gestating from the fertile ground that was Garth Brooks and Shania Twain into something that now more closely resembles pop music than anything country. And “Big A” Alternative? Practically a dirty word.
The splintering of the proverbial indie wood makes the existence of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot seem like almost a talisman to a former time, when things were far easier to consider and contextualize. Perhaps it was even one of the last records to do so, considering that it was released around the same time as seminal, unclassifiable monuments to the beginnings of blog-rock such as Turn On the Bright Lights, Is This It or even Kid A. There’s a key distinction to be made here, though; no one would be accurately able to classify any records directly inspired by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, whereas the previous three have been aped to oblivion with maddeningly diminishing returns over the past eleven years.
At first blush, this should be a point against the Great Wilco Masterpiece’s scorecard of landmark albums of, well, ever. After all, it’s the greatest albums that have the most tangible impact on the world after their release, isn’t it? Validation unlocks the door to the smoker’s club of the All-Time, and the fact that no one has popularly attempted to improve on or adapt the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot formula should say something about its outsider status as an amazing record. For christ sakes, The Blueprint has certainly been done to death. Why not “Radio Cure?
If you haven’t heard or guessed, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot turned ten last week. It’s genesis has been done to death like geneses always do; there was even a fantastic movie made about the process. Diehards have dissected and turned over all of the session recordings, noting the subtle and not so subtle flourishes the late Jay Bennet tuned down on the frequently too rockist Wilco in the wake of the brash and beautiful Summerteeth. Jeff Tweedy has noodled with the composition of every song on tour, yet always seems to leave the utterly perfect shuffle of “Jesus, Etc.” The pontification about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot always seems to drown out the album itself, which really is more a sign of modernity and classic status than any sort of imitation, given the blogosphere’s no storied history for pumping things full of words.
But on a tenth anniversary, isn’t it appropriate to light one more candle? To shower compliments on an album that miraculously still gets better after its millionth listen through?
There really is no conceivable argument that that there has been an album better crafted than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It does what Animal Collective do, but using natural instruments and songmanship instead of hazy noodling. Listen to “Poor Places,” an oft forgotten track towards the end of the record. It grows from atmospheric piano tones and solitary Tweedy war torn romanticism to folksy harmoniousness into a final fit of madness, all without startling or breaking character. The beautiful chord change at the 1:40 mark, a tossed off chord progression in the absolute background of a wall of noise, would form the structural backbone of the best song most folk bands have ever record. The caterwauling piano that drops out immediately to the guitar. A forgotten track that plays out like a minor pop symphony.
“I’m hiding out in the big city, blinkin’ / what was I thinkin’ when I let go of you?” A simple line about loneliness, a topic Jeff Tweedy is intimately familiar with. That drunkard’s romanticism is all over Yankee, a fitting theme considering Tweedy’s well-documented struggled with mind-altering substances up until his eventual breakdown post-A Ghost is Born. One could easily argue that he wrote more evocatively about his personal struggles with substance abuse and its effects on his relationships; the best tracks on Summerteeth harken this. But Tweedy’s gift that he’s never really been able to get back since Yankee is his ability to blend in seamless with his surroundings. Never does it seem like he’s placing too much emphasis on his longing – only he could say “there is something wrong with me” and make it seem thoughtful, and not tossed off. The lyrics on Yankee don’t feel like a singular version, per se. Instead, it feels as though an entire brain spilling itself onto the floor and listening to a man trying to pick it back up. Read the line “Oh distance has no way of making love understandable” with whichever line breaks you wish, the man who muscles it out is still a mess. For all its worth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a perfect mess. It is clear-headed at points, a shamble of noise and unfamiliar territory in others.
A band is an organism, which is something the greatest bands use as a strength. Great albums spring forth different parts of that organism, whether the brain (Kid A, Merriweather Post Pavilion), the heart (In the Aeroplane over the Sea, Is This It), or parts further south (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). Those are the records that can be imitated, because every band or artist has the ability to channel their specific id, ego or superego. The greatest albums, though, are a complete organism, combining every puzzle piece of the human condition of a band into one singular being. They are inimitable, and they stand as testaments to a pitch perfect moment in time when suddenly, everything went right. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one of those albums. A testament to the potential of music to embody every facet of a specific human’s condition for at least one moment. Those are the records that are impossible to replicate, because they’re creation hinges on much more than listening. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot doesn’t require emotional investment, it just gets it. It might not happen again, so for this week, raise a glass and listen to a ten year old record without peer that doesn’t wait around for you, but welcomes you with open arms once you get there.
Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tracklist:
- “I am Trying to Break Your Heart”
- “Radio Cure”
- “War on War”
- “Jesus, Etc.”
- “Ashes of American Flags”
- “Heavy Metal Drummer”
- “I’m the Man Who Loves You”
- “Pot Kettle Black”
- “Poor Places”