Mr Blue Sky !
My ongoing love affair with Wilco began at the time of Sky Blue Sky’s release, but not, oddly, with the album itself, which received fairly mixed opinions at the time. Sifting through those variable reviews I found myself tracking back to their earlier album ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘, for me their masterpiece, and following it with the more challenging but (almost) equally rewarding ‘Ghost is Born‘. The criticisms levelled at Sky Blue Sky seemed to be that they had abandoned some of their wilful dissonance and sonic adventure in favour of softer rock brushstrokes and a return to the more conventional (pre-YHF) alt-country template with which they had made their name, but that I am admittedly not familiar with. Thus it was with mild trepiditation that I approached Sky Blue Sky, and I’m happy to report, belatedly, that it’s a very beautiful record indeed. Some of what has been lost in terms of electronic or experimental distortion has been compensated in part by some of Jeff Tweedy’s most robust and lucid vocals yet, and by a lushness of instrumentation, abetted by the addition of two new players in Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche – names new to me but apparently experimentalists of some repute.
Sky Blue Sky been painted as too ‘nice’, too soft rock, but Wilco’s moods are too despondent, too bleak to satisfy the real mainstream. Both tight and expansive, many of Sky Blue Sky’s tracks unfold with beautifully sparring guitars – their singular gifts for mixing textures undiminished. The fact that the textures have changed – there are fewer Jim O’Rourke-patented spasms of guitar noise – doesn’t automatically make the music garden-variety. There is a lighter, jazzier feel with soulful and even Far Eastern accents in places (‘Impossible Germany’), but with an economy, precision and inventiveness that persistently catches the ear. Dispensing with an exhaustive track by track guide here I urge undecided buyers to check out streams of ‘Side with the Seeds’, with its thrilling ascent from bluesy rock to vertiginous post-rock cacophony. Book-ended by the bleak piano-led ‘Either Way’ and ‘On And On And On’, Sky Blue Sky’s other highlights include the hazy, steel-pedal beauty of the title track, and the simple, lilting ballads ‘Please Be Patient With Me’ and ‘Leave Me (Like You Found Me)’, with their weeping, piercingly gorgeous high-end guitar work. Some of the jauntier numbers (‘Shake It Off’, for example) are more disappointing but overall this feels like an album that has been done some major critical injustice, probably owing to over-anticipation following their mid-decade purple patch. Something that hasn’t been lost between Sky Blue Sky and ‘A Ghost is Born‘ though is that odd spaciousness to their songwriting: no other band to my knowledge can be so tight whilst simultaneously making such a puzzling texture out of emptiness. Great stuff.