The theater that is a modern rock band is always soap operatic, full of artistic idealism, ego, special collective inspiration, and messy divorces. The rock band Wilco is a prime example of this, itself borne of a messy divorce and full of line-up changes that would make a purist dizzy. Through it all, however, they have time and time again produced evocative and progressive music that has led the band to be considered an icon of the alternative rock scene and a special favorite of music critics. They are an amalgam of Americana folk, American pop, 60’s and 70’s mainstream, Beatlesque experimentation, and occasionally bombastic electronic chaos. In a time of artificial talent and fained musicianship, Wilco is at the heart of what is left of the talented few groups carrying on the tradition of roots rock centrally created by artist musicians.
The soul of the band is the lead singer and composer Jeff Tweedy, responsible for most of the compositions and all of the drama. Tweedy and Jay Farrar were the dynamic duo of the seminal alternative country rock band Uncle Tupelo, and as is typical of two egos with alternative visions of music, the band fractured in 1994. Farrar left to form a band of similar bent, Son Volt, and Tweedy picked up the remnants of Uncle Tupelo to form Wilco. The initial Wilco efforts, the album A.M., presented little variation form the Tupelo sound, but with Being There and Summerteeth, a new Wilco sound evolved, full of Tweedy’s special capacity to write witty and melodic verse and experiment with varied sounds and influences. Critics began to take notice, and so did Tweedy, becoming more and more sensitive to outside influences messing with the group. This led to moving Wilco from one record company to another, after a particularly acrimonious set arguments with his fellow band mate Jay Bennett and Warners Records executives regarding the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and its perceived lack of crossover radio appeal and Bennett’s incessant need to overproduce the Wilco sound and not trust the musicianship, A Tweedy mortal sin. Moving to Nonesuch Records with an album nobody seemed to want, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot proved to be the album everyone said it was not, holding crossover appeal to the tune of 600,000 albums sold, and winning critical aclaim as one of the 100 most important rock albums of all time by RollingStone magazine.
The albums and awards have continued to flow for Wilco, including two Grammys and five nominations. Each album stands on its own as a prismatic reflection of multiple musical influences as diverse as an album of forgotten Woody Guthrie songs in Mermaid Avenue that re-established that populist poet as a writer of first rate songs, A Ghost is Born and Sky Blue Sky as reminders of the height of American Band Pop, and Kicking Television as pinnacle of live performance album rock. The newest album Wilco (The Album) is the perfect reflection of music twenty years in the making, with all influences represented and all the excellent musicians of Wilco getting a chance to make their contribution. Wilco stands, after all its experimental heart , in the epicenter of the tradition of great American music.