Having spent the better part of the last 15 years constantly touring and recording, building the Wilco "brand" with a dedication that includes customised posters in the classic counter-culture style for each of their shows, Jeff Tweedy decided to take a break for the latter half of last year and re-charge his batteries.
Some break: he returned with enough new material for two albums, which the band have trimmed to the dozen tracks that comprise The Whole Love, another detailed mining of the heart from possibly America's most personal songwriter. Tweedy writes the kind of songs that leave you slightly uncomfortable, as if eavesdropping on another's emotional turmoil, even when the choruses are calling you in to sing along lustily. As he sings here at one point, "I will throw myself underneath the wheels of any train of thought running off the rails," a self-devouring metaphor that captures both the openness and the recklessness of his craft.
But it takes more than just a great songwriter to make a great band; and in its latest incarnation since multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and berserker avant-rock guitarist Nels Cline joined the ranks in 2004, Wilco has become as great a band as any in America.
Effectively, they've wrested the alt.rock crown from R.E.M., with whom they share similar roots in mutant pop and country-rock, and like whom they have developed a flexibility that allows them to thrust confidently into new and unexpected sonic areas. So they manage to slip from the cheerful exuberance of "I Might", with its poppy organ and strutting bassline, straight into the more tentative territory of "Sunloathe", where the plaintive piano and celesta are subjected to whiskery effects akin to a Sparklehorse patina, with no grinding of gears. Sometimes, they effect the manoeuvre in the same song, as in the confluence of Tweedy's whistling and Cline's guitar noise in "Dawned on Me", a genially chugging rocker with another singalong open-heart lyric: "I've been young, I've been old/ I've been hurt and consoled/ Heart of coal, heart of gold, so I'm told".
They open the album almost apologetically, sidling into the seven-minute "Art of Almost" on glitchy, hesitant drums, which are gradually subsumed under a swell of strings before the vocals arrive, before eventually developing a throbbing momentum. It's balanced at the other end of the album by the gently meditative canter of the 12-minute "One Sunday Morning", a song whose intrinsic modesty and charm ensures it doesn't outstay its welcome at all, the recurring guitar motif never losing its appeal throughout the rumination on life, responsibility and duty.
In between these bookending tracks are others which bring to mind influences as disparate as Devo, Doug Sahm, and Van Dyke Parks, songs in which whining pedal steel nestles alongside garage-rock organ, twinkling glockenspiel and strident guitar weirdness, a riot of expansive sonic colour. If it's not quite the landmark that was Wilco (the album), it's not far behind, as absorbing as any you'll hear this year.
DOWNLOAD THIS: Art of Almost; Dawned on Me; Whole Love; One Sunday Morning