The Chicago-based indie rock stalwarts return to their country roots on a sprawling journey to the heart of America
Trepidation is natural when a band retraces old steps. Often, “back to basics” translates as “we ran out of ideas so just tried to give you what you’d been after since the first album”. There’s no trepidation though when Wilco talk about going country. Curiosity, maybe? Certainly, it all veers more than a little towards excitement.
After all, Jeff Tweedy spent the early 90s redefining country music with the records he recorded with Uncle Tupelo. With Wilco, he’s spent an entire career smashing the genre into ever stranger and more wonderful shapes – such as the glitchy, self-destructing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Yet Cruel Country isn’t Wilco winding the clock back or undoing their last 25 years. There’s none of the firebrand countrified power pop of A.M. or the Stones-indebted rusted-out rockers of their last double album, Being There. Cruel Country feels more like re-reading a book you loved as a teen and finding a brand-new meaning. There’s no way the Wilco of 1994 could have made a record like this. This is the sound of a band that has learned the rules, broken them, forgotten them and then written new ones from hazy memories.
That said, there are elements of Wilcos past scattered throughout Cruel Country. The gently rolling opener ‘I Am My Mother’ wouldn’t have been out of place on Sky Blue Sky, while ‘Ambulance’ could be a lost outtake from their Mermaid Avenue albums with Billy Bragg, although no sane person would discard a song this pretty.
Where Cruel Country differs from Wilco post-YHF is its sense of organic inevitability, like these six people playing together in a room would only have ever produced this album. Wilco have made a habit out of sounding like they were dismantling their songs like mad scientists, finding the strangest ways to solder them back together. Cruel Country is the first time since Being There that they’ve sounded like they just let it happen.
Tweedy has said that this is the first record Wilco have made by playing together in a room since Sky Blue Sky and that shows. Much like that slow-burner, Cruel Country demonstrates that putting Wilco in a room with their instruments pulls their mellower inclinations to the fore. Even Nels Cline’s sterling guitar work sounds more reserved. Very few songs here rise above a gentle lope, but that’s not even close to an issue with a set that is the band’s strongest in some time. It’s hard to shake the idea that this is Tweedy’s natural state as a songwriter and returning to it has only strengthened his songwriting. Wilco also sound looser than ever, which makes songs like ‘Falling Apart (Right Now)’ all the more fun.
But why the change of approach? Why return to country and folk now? Thematically, Cruel Country overtly takes its title from America as much as the genre. Tweedy repeatedly condemns his country for the roads it has chosen and the cruelty it has meted out – particularly on the title track – but that’s all juxtaposed with the beauty he still finds there. It’s a complicated and confusing relationship, which makes folk and country such perfect vehicles. When kinship and community are so fractured, what better framework than the genre begat by both?
Cruel Country is out 27 May 2022 on dBpm Records