Schmilco, And The Wilco Paradox

Rainy day rant by Noam Bronstein

It doesn’t matter that ten years ago, most rock journos proclaimed Wilco to be washed up purveyors of ‘dad rock’. Or that five years before that, they were the “darlings du jour” of the indie scene. For about 10 minutes. It certainly doesn’t matter – to me – that Wilco’s new disc Schmilco, the band’s tenth studio record (and probably one of its weaker studio efforts), is garnering near-universal praise in the media. What the hell does the media know about it? Less than you think, judging by the reviews I’ve read. (Pitchfork and Uproxx were pleasant exceptions)

Music critics are a fickle bunch. Living for their approval is a fool’s errand, like reliving the 9th Grade. As humans I’d rate them somewhere between lawyers and used car salesmen, to be grossly generalistic. So screw them, and their agendas.

What matters isn’t whether Jeff Tweedy gets kudos, or another Grammy nod. What matters is that Wilco is still one of the great performing bands; they craft a lot of very fine music, and deliver it *live* to audiences in a way most other ensembles can only dream of doing.

A Wilco concert is an experience. The band performs their artisanal pallette with a ton of energy and creativity, they paint with every colour and shade available. There are moments so quiet, they only ‘work’ for those lucky enough to be sitting up front. At other times the band is so electrifying, everyone is on their feet dancing and singing along (yes – white people). Best of all, they play as a unit, a collective musical force that not only highlights their individual strengths, their subtleties, but also becomes something bigger than itself. If you don’t get Wilco, quit trying and just go to a concert.

And oh, what they do with the songs.

Even though each of the band members is an accomplished musician, of star calibre even, and even though Jeff Tweedy is a pretty good songwriter, there are no real stars in this band. Nor any hit songs, to speak of. At least not of the mainstream radio sort. They know how to play together, and they clearly have fun doing it.

Tweedy is a middle-aged white guy now, and while he doesn’t take himself that seriously, many of his songs still fall under the banner of “self-indulgent”, or at least, self-conscious. But so what? He’s writing from his gut. And his complaints are a hell of a lot more interesting (and insightful) than listening to Drake or Kanye brag about their Twitter base, or whine about the moochers in their entourage. When the band comes in and add their parts, the music is, well, I’d say it’s “evolved”. It’s live music with scale, and substance, and nuance. Hell, throw in some anthems befitting the grandiose rock oeuvre, and let’s have a party, Lester.

In a way Wilco really is more Grateful Dead than Beatles. The Beatles were the ultimate studio band: you didn’t have to see them live, to be a superfan. Which is a good thing, since most of us never got that chance. Although Wilco has laid down the occasional masterpiece on tape, that’s something which has happened with declining frequency in recent years. I can’t think of one since One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend), from 2011’s The Whole Love. Like prime-era Dylan, or the Dead, their defining performances are live. It’s the one you’ll see tonight in Berkeley, or next week in Oslo.

And that’s the Wilco Paradox, for me. It’s that a band of contented friends can make decent records, and then create extraordinary performances from those songs – night after night on the road, twenty-one years on. With emotion. With musicianship. Reliable as a stone. Maybe this group, that started out (during the height of grunge) as a Midwestern alt-country outfit with disavowed punk roots, is really what the essence of rock and roll is about. It’s Chuck Berry in 1958, getting down and making people dance and shout.

White people, even.

(as an aside, Jeff Tweedy has long held the position that great art doesn’t need to be born from suffering. And he did his share of suffering. Those who hold Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born to be Wilco’s ultimate studio creations should bear that in mind)

Does it bug me that Wilco never broke into the mainstream? Yeah, and not really. I love being able to still buy a 30- or 40-dollar ticket, to hear them play in a reasonably good venue. I think the band likes it that way, too. The fans do, and they appreciate the ethic of a band willing to work hard to give you your money’s worth for that modestly priced ticket. Apart from a notable lack of racial diversity, a Wilco show is a pretty damn nice atmosphere. Just put away the cell phone, dammit. It’s not a Dave Matthews gig.

So, my appeal to listeners is simple. Don’t listen to the jerks who call themselves critics. Don’t worry about the songs, or even the albums. Some will connect, it’s a personal thing. Whether it’s Wilco, Radiohead, or anyone else, the “best” albums are the ones you dove deepest into: it’s a timing thing. The records are all good, and worthwhile. Why critique them, when they were created to be experienced? It’s art…why do we insist on dissecting it like (pseudo)scientists? I don’t really care if you buy Schmilco, or any other album. But do see this band live, when you can, and preferably as headliners in a small-medium venue with decent sonics. You won’t regret it, and you won’t ever forget it. Wilco forever.

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