GREAT GUITARS: Jeff Tweedy (second from left) and Nels Cline (fourth) recall the Tom Verlaine/Richard Lloyd pairing in Television.
For the past 11 years, Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy has been trying to carve his band’s image into the Mount Rushmore of Great American Rock, right alongside Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Byrds, the Band, and the Allman Brothers. Now he can lay down his chisel.
Wilco’s new Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch), which comes out Tuesday, is an outright masterpiece — an album that, like the finest recordings of the aforementioned outfits, creates its own universe. Much as John Fogerty imagined a swamp-rock cosmos in Creedence’s Green River, Tweedy has carefully constructed the sounds and stories of Sky Blue Sky to conjure a place that doesn’t quite exist yet seems comfortably familiar. Its dozen songs are a trip through a concrete-and-glass Shangri-La with scattered dark clouds, where beauty and grace work vigilantly to keep loss and despair at bay.
“My favorite albums have always had a sustained vibe, a kind of overall feeling that knit the songs together no matter what they were about lyrically,” Tweedy says. “That’s something we worked very hard to accomplish this time, although in a lot of ways this was the easiest studio experience I’ve ever had recording an album. We really wanted to make something beautiful and positive, and I hope we accomplished that.”
Tweedy’s speaking by cellphone in his car, which is the lone vehicle parked on the uppermost deck of a garage in Chicago — the only place where he can get a signal. “The security guards keep circling me,” he says. “They’re wondering what I’m up to.”
And basking in the glow of Wilco’s finest album probably isn’t on their list.
What’s awkward about proclaiming Sky Blue Sky a treasure is that critics have heralded every Wilco album that’s followed the group’s 1995 debut A.M. (Reprise/WEA), which the singer/guitarist recorded with other refugees from the alt-country outfit Uncle Tupelo, as their best. And they’ve been correct. Tweedy has layered tastier meat onto Wilco’s Byrds-meets-Stones bones every time he’s entered the studio. But with 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch), Wilco’s fourth, his songwriting and arranging began to twist on a brand new axis. Elements of free jazz and yowling rock distortion crept into the provocative “Ashes of American Flags” and “Poor Places.” It was as if he were channeling confusion, anger, and a need to free his imprisoned soul into his guitar and his lyrics — which, it turns out, he was — and the rest of Wilco had caught and amplified the vibe. Or quit. Sure, plenty of the jangly pop-rock constructions that pleased Wilco fans earlier remained in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but even Lou Reed might have cracked a smile on hearing the disc’s gnarled burrowings into the Velvet Underground. With Sky Blue Sky, Wilco have completed their 180-degree turn. The spin accelerated in 2004 when Tweedy recruited avant-garde guitar hero Nels Cline. They’d met when Cline played with LA alt-rockers the Geraldine Fibbers, who opened a tour for the Tweedy-and-pals side project Golden Smog.
“I was knocked out by his playing and kept up with him over the years,” Tweedy recounts, “and when [guitarist and keyboardist] Jay [Bennett] left, I told Nels I’d really like him to be in the band.” At first Cline was skeptical, because Tweedy himself had recently evolved from a competent twanger into a raging, inventive guitar wrecker. “I gave him a copy of [Wilco’s 2004] A Ghost Is Born and Nels said, ‘What would I do? You’re already kicking ass.’ I told him not to worry about it.”
As it turns out, what Cline does is complete a great American guitar partnership the likes of which hasn’t been heard for 30 years: since Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd chaired the board of musical directors of Television. The difference is that Tweedy is a visionary songwriter and arranger who came out of his period of anger, estrangement, and drug abuse — the stuff that fed his Foxtrot flames — with his abilities not just intact but improved. The on-the-fly magic of Cline and Tweedy made 2005’s live Kicking Television (Nonesuch) — is that title a coincidence? — a masterpiece of melodic poise balanced with sonic chaos. And they’re still making unforgettable sounds with their instruments on Sky Blue Sky. The disc has the classic-rock heft of the Band’s Music from Big Pink and Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On. Its dozen songs are illuminated by an airy melodic architecture unprecedented in Wilco’s catalogue, even as it embraces compositional techniques like minimalism (“On and On and On”) and mood-altering dissonance (“Side with the Seeds”). There’s still some of the Byrds’ melodic phrasing, especially in Tweedy’s elaborately arranged vocal lines, which are tailored for maximum sweetness and gentility. But the group have put an even wider setting on their wayback machine, copping a wicked guitar quote from Peter Green in “You Are My Face” and digging into Dylan world with “What Light,” a tune that would fit the sequence of Highway 61 Revisited.