Sky Blue Sky
John Metzger's #7 album for 2007
What Light: Memorable Song #6 for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2007, Volume 14, #5
Written by John Metzger
Mon May 14, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
By all rights, Wilco ought not to be making music anymore. When taken individually, the array of personnel changes, record label problems, and health issues that the band has endured certainly would have proven difficult for most outfits to overcome. In combination, these obstacles become nearly insurmountable. Yet, Wilco improbably has weathered each storm it has faced by seeming to take strength from the turbulence. Although its debut A.M. largely was an extension of front man Jeff Tweedy’s countryfied work with Uncle Tupelo, Wilco’s subsequent outings were the products of a rapid period of growth that was nearly unprecedented for any group in any genre. Only The Beatles, as it moved from Help to Revolver to The White Album, had managed to shape-shift its sound so dramatically, so fluidly, and so magnificently.
Sooner or later, these seismic shifts in Wilco’s sonic architecture had to come to an end — or at least slow down — because no band, no matter how good, could possibly manage to sustain them forever. Since welcoming guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone to the fold in the wake of the release of its 2004 effort A Ghost Is Born, Wilco finally seems to have found some semblance of stability. This, in turn, has provided the outfit with a long overdue opportunity to pause and reflect upon its accomplishments. At first glance, this is precisely what its latest endeavor Sky Blue Sky is meant to do. Throughout the set, the group appears to take stock of its evolution. Considering that there decidedly is an alt-country flavor to the proceedings, the album plays, at least initially, like a rendition of Being There that has been updated to be more mature and better focused.
A closer examination, however, reveals that each strand of Wilco’s past is alive and well, and these snapshots continue to kick around inside Sky Blue Sky’s music. The discordance of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, for example, is invoked by the hazy conclusion to You Are My Face. The folk-oriented Woody Guthrie-isms of the band’s work with Billy Bragg filter through portions of Either Way and What Light. The Neil Young-ian firepower of A Ghost Is Born rises up during Hate It Here, and the influences of The Eagles and the Rolling Stones, which had weighed so heavily upon Being There, bubble to the surface of Impossible Germany and What Light. Even the Beatle-esque flourishes of summerteeth are meted out in small snippets, flashing through both the Oh Darling-style intro to Side with the Seeds as well as the meshing of strings and drums that emanates from Either Way’s mid-section.
Still, the one thing that Wilco can’t be accused of doing is repeatedly recycling its work. Each album that the band has issued has seen it move in a new direction, but rather than abandoning its past, the group has found intriguing ways to reshape, recast, and illuminate it. Sky Blue Sky might not appear to be as big a departure as some of Wilco’s other efforts have been, but the collection does find the outfit, once again, exploring new ground. The biggest change between Sky Blue Sky and its previous endeavors stems from the manner in which Wilco has drawn from its influences, and in effect, it has incorporated into its work the retro-soul inflections of the current pop scene. In lieu of looking to The Eagles for its country rock ruminations, as it did on Being There — when, for example, it transformed Already Gone into I Got You (at the End of the Century) — the ensemble instead opted to latch onto the shimmering R&B of One of These Nights in order to form the framework of Impossible Germany. Elsewhere, there’s a Motown motif — including a readily apparent quote from Smokey Robinson’s I Second That Emotion — that clamors through Hate It Here, while Please Be Patient with Me turns back the clock even further to pull from Rev. Gary Davis’ gentle blend of folk and blues.
What is, perhaps, most fascinating about Sky Blue Sky, however, is that nothing is quite as it seems. Songs begin in one place, but they frequently wind up somewhere that is completely different. You Are My Face, for example, hinges upon a Robby Krieger-ish guitar riff as it mutates from the quiet reflection of Simon & Garfunkel to a gritty, urban-funk groove. For all of its soulfulness, Impossible Germany reaches a climax that, strangely enough, is reminiscent of Thin Lizzy’s twin-guitar attack. Elsewhere, Side with the Seeds breaks free from its mooring as the guitars begin to pulsate at an increasingly rapid pace, and the lonely, Harry Nilsson-ish Leave Me (Like You Found Me) slips through a psychedelic portal — a rippling reflection, perhaps, of its protagonist’s fragile psyche.
These juxtapositions of sounds and styles mirror the refractions of light that pour through Tweedy’s latest batch of lyrics. "Maybe the sun will shine today/The clouds will blow away/Maybe I won’t feel so afraid," he sings on Sky Blue Sky’s opening cut Either Way, and the mood concocted by his words suitably shades the entirety of the affair. True, there are moments of darkness and self-doubt, but there also is an undeniable feeling of hope that permeates the set. By the time that the ensemble reaches its dreamy finale On and On and On, it’s clear that both Tweedy and his band not only have survived, but they also have taken strength from the trials and tribulations of their journey.
Sky Blue Sky is, in a sense, an aural riddle. It immediately recalls Wilco’s earlier works, yet it also is nothing like them. It is, at first, disquietingly unsure of itself, but if it is allowed to linger, it soon sounds so comfortable that it seems as if this is where Wilco always has been. The more time spent with Sky Blue Sky, the better it becomes, and although it isn’t immediately gratifying, it eventually will feel like an old friend.
Sky Blue Sky is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box