It’s hard now to imagine that one of Wilco’s finest albums was one of the hardest ones for them to release. The story of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” has now dissolved into industry myth, a story for music aficionados to tell when one of the album’s tracks plays in a bar or at a party. With body language and the right intonation, each can tell their own version of the fall and resurrection of one of the best albums of the 2000s. Yet despite these legends, we are still left with the rise of an album that would skirt genre and expectation in a myriad of ways, solidifying Wilco’s status as one of the most unique bands of the new millennium.
Since its release in April 2002, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” has gained a legendary reputation among alt-country and indie fans, earning Wilco universal acclaim among hardcore music fans and critics alike. People applauded their infectious mix of catchy tunes and avant-garde experimentation. Through it all Jeff Tweedy’s voice soothes us with a world-weary yet comforting delivery, and the rest is history.
Emerging from a fractured cacophony of sounds, Wilco shows us the intricacy of their sound on opener “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” The band expertly blends elements of dissonance and melody, organically building and destroying the song in a process that creates a sound all their own. By the time Tweedy’s voice enters the picture, the song has locked into place and set the stage for the lyrics’ big entrance:
“I am an American aquarium drinker
I assassin down the avenue
I’m hiding out in the big city blinking
What was I thinking when I let go of you?”
These opening lyrics have now become iconic in the lore of indie music, coming to represent a unique moment when an alt-country band dropped its own restraints and made an album that tested the limits of different genres and a band’s own idea of itself. Their label, Reprise, famously dropped them after they delivered the album, not happy with the end product and concerned with its marketability. Ironically, Wilco would go on to sign and release the album with Nonesuch, part of the same parent company as Reprise, and release the album to critical and commercial success.
In the aftermath, singer and bandleader Tweedy was confused by what had happened with Reprise. He felt that he had made a great, even accessible, record. Considering such pop songs as “Kamera” and “Heavy Metal Drummer” populate the album, he’s not wrong to think such a thing. But maybe the problem lies in that first track, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” which so effortlessly toes the line of dissonant sound on its way to melancholic glory. I can imagine the record executive in their office, slowly shaking their head as the fractured sounds of the track ooze through the speakers.
Still, though, it makes one wonder. That record cronie must have listened through some veil to not have seen the light. Did they not hear the dripping strings and bittersweet anxiety of “Jesus, Etc.?” Could they not experience the pure pop nostalgia washout of “Heavy Metal Drummer?” And how did they ignore the ingenuity of “Poor Places” as it morphed effortlessly from form to form. Perhaps seeing, or perceiving truth, is harder than we hope it to be.
It seems, in retrospect, to have been an incompetent lack of foresight to not have seen the genius of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” But that’s the stuff that makes legend: the blinding ignorance of the world, the rise of the hero in conflict against such world, and the ensuing battle for truth. That is the story of this album. It is a tale Wilco’s struggle to release an album that would become the musical statement, a magnum opus that all their other work would be compared to. It is the band’s quest to find what meaning there is for art in a world of bottom lines and spreadsheets. It is an attempt to communicate honestly with each other through the haze of life.
But sometimes communication is harder than we want it to be. We want to break through to the truth, but only sidestep into abstractions. Thankfully, closer “Reservations” is a courageous ending that tries it’s best to break through the communication fog, coloring itself in a raw personal statement:
“How can I convince you it’s me I don’t like
When I’ve always been distant
And I’ve always told lies for love”
Before the song disintegrates into ambient noise and reversed shadows of what the track was, we hear the chorus ring out in yearning, desperate tones:
“Oh I’ve got reservations
About so many things
But not about you”