"Put on your headphones before you explode / Wilco, Wilco, Wilco will love ya, baby" There is no reason not to believe these words, taken from a song entitled Wilco (The Song), which opens an album entitled Wilco (The Album), performed by Wilco (the Band). Nothing but class, ladies and gentlemen!
There is no doubt that Jeff Tweedy's Wilco love their fans the way they always have: sincerely and with no compromise. A fan-base interested in every new direction they take, and always in the middle of their intense group therapy on post-modernism that has defined the band's journey.
In fact, not a single move in their career or a single note in their songs has come without being maniacally scrutinized to its deepest layer of meaning. The question is, then, what happened to justify such a devoted level of attention?
Jeff Tweedy was once the poster-boy for alt-country, a genre he helped define in the late 1980's with Uncle Tupelo. But after 1996's Being There, the genre had become a cage for him. For Tweedy to progress as an artist he had to set all his demons and obsessions free.
Tweedy's intolerance of the rules, his drug problems, chronic headaches, the panic attacks, and his constant feeling of disorientation all feed into his lyrics about someone who is trying to find his space among the chaos of the world. His love of the hypnotic sounds of '70's kraut-rock, his love for Beatles, and deep knowledge of American roots music, all congealed into new sounds and confessions.
Everything became an epic crusade of excesses. He made great music and madness that has involved record companies, press, disappointed fans, the internet, new fans, and plenty of legal offices.
Summerteeth (1999) was a Brian Wilson-esque dream, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) a soundtrack of silence and decay, and A Ghost Is Born (2004) played like a painfully noisy stare-down between Neil Youngand Can. Next came the explosive live album, Kicking Television (2005), which jumped out of the speakers like an angry poem on the beauty of rock'n'roll and its ability to save if not everyone who plays it, at least everyone who listens to it.
If Wilco's music had a film counterpart, it would be hard not to compare Kicking Television to the attempts of film-director Michael Cimino (Deer Hunter) to merge history and legend into the same frame. The band's main showcase has always been Tweedy's ability to transcend post-modernism without holding back from using every part of it. The constant search of impossible songs, where KISS is part of the Carter Family, Paul McCartney and Keith Richards are best friends, and American roots duet with European avant-rock. But in actual fact, Wilco play Wilco, not to say they've become a parody of themselves, but because there are no labels to define their sound.
So Wilco make an album called Wilco and sing a song titled Wilco. Is this arrogance? No, it's simply the mere awareness that they have become their own genre. They prove it is possible to create something new, starting from the relationship with their fans: a mutual love, as well as a few challenges along the way. The group's rabid fan-base is similar to the prolific writer Dave Eggers whose fans rush to each new work knowing it is nothing less than the best that the artist can give at that moment.
With 2007's Sky Blue Sky, Wilco took another turn. Adding the wild savage guitarist Nels Cline, the group followed in the steps of The Band, The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. According to Robert Christgau, the so-called "dean of American critics", Tweedy is more interesting "everywhere he stops soundscaping and resumes songwriting", or, in other words, when he stops trying to be Brian Eno and goes back to his roots in Townes Van Zandt. But Tweedy doesn't look back. He's the guy who sings, "I'm the man who loves you" and "I am trying to break your heart". He's simply genuine. Who cares whether he's perfect?
A Wilco album wouldn't be a Wilco album without scribbles, absolute terms and dazzling tumbles. And so "imperfect" would also describe Wilco (The Album) - full of furious vitality, where the spacey roar of a grungy Bull Black Nova ( "It's in my hair, there's blood in the sink / I can't calm down, I can't think") find a place next to the lovely folkie shades of a You And I softened by the harmonies of Canadian Leslie Feist, or where the soft rock tones of Everlasting Everything somewhere between Duane Allman and A Day In The Life sit near the pop melodies (although with lap-steel) of Deeper Down and the gloomy soul of Country Disappeared.
If it were a movie, it would be an early John Landis film: crazy, radical and progressive. Rash sketches are not missing - I mean, was a Californian trifle like You Never Know was really necessary in an album featuring amazing ballads like Solitaire and One Wing, the latter of the same level of the best Fleetwood Mac? But the production of veteran Jim Scott assures the usual high level of homogeneity.
After many evoked movies, finally, there's a real concert film - Ashes Of American Flags. Released on DVD by Nonesuch, is an elegiac road-movie (not merely a self-celebration though!) about the rual side of America where most of the group members come from.
Although filled with an infinite number of marvellous songs, such as the Gram Parsons-esque, It's Just That Simple (sung by John Stirratt), Via Chicago full of lights and explosions like a lost Pixies single, Shot In The Arm and Monday in a hard rock version, Woody Guthrie's Airline To Heaven and a monumental That's What You Said summing all the sadness and regrets of the world in electric lashes, Ashes Of American Flags is first and foremost a movie.
Ashes is about landscape, about forced industrialization (and abandonment) of great urban suburbs, about ghostly and wonderful countrysides, charming forgotten corners, historical stages (for example, Nashville's Ryman Auditorium and New Orleans' Tipitina).
The beginning is superb, with the group playing an amazing version of the title-track (Cline is in great form) while the screen displays the sepia portraits of Conway Twitty, Pee Wee Ellis and many other "national legends". Wonderful moments also include times when the documentary, the concert and conversations candidly filmed merge in one single box.
Comparing Hank Williams with Madonna (not musically but as voices of their eras of pop culture), Tweedy affirms he has always loved the ability for folk music to create a common sense, a collective history and identity where they did not exist before.
In some ways, he did even more: Tweedy created his own community, built around him, by embracing anyone who wanted to dedicate enough time and love to his group's songs. Free entrance for anybody; always. So, if you haven't got the ticket yet, this is the moment to get it.