Just as diversity can be a good or bad thing, a band content to sound like itself can be a good or bad thing, too. I think this is the reason the Beatles's self titled album (commonly referred to as The White Album) is my favorite of their's. It's all over the map, stylistically and mood-wise, and in the end it didn't represent a leap or further development for the band so much as a consolidation of their strengths and a longform demonstration of their gift for inventive, art tinged pop. By contrast, Wilco's self titled album is arguably the weakest thing they've done since their debut, A.M., because Wilco (The Album) is a mess of contrasting styles that recall music from their various albums but come off like weaker versions.
I actually love Sky Blue Sky, which has a laid back, classic rocky feel to it. Even in that 'simple' setting I felt that Jeff Tweedy and company were exploring new things and pushing themselves. Also, the songwriting remained strong, a crucial element in the band's appeal. 'Sunken Treasure' and 'I Am Trying To Break Your Heart' are songs that hook fan for life; even the peppy 'Wilco (The Song)', the best thing here, isn't that good.
Most of Wilco (The Album) feels undercooked and effortless. By which I mean, effortless in a bad way. It adds nothing to their sound and only a handful of songs rise above "this reminds me of X off of Y", where X represents one of your favorite songs from album Y. 'Bull Black Nova' reminds me of 'Spiders (Kidsmoke)' off of A Ghost Is Born, but not as good. 'Country Disappeared' reminds me of, well, a lot of songs off of Sky Blue Sky but isn't as good. 'You Never Know' reminds me of 'Outta Mind (Outta Sight)' off of Being There but is weaker for it. I would never complain about Wilco recording stuff that sounded like songs they've done before but if the songwriting isn't as good it doesn't matter what they're trying to sound like. The Sea & Cake have sounded like themselves for most of their career but every album they put out is of a consistent quality.
So I find myself in the strange position with this album of recommending it to newcomers but telling established fans to skip it. It's as good an introduction to the band as you can get, containing most of the various styles and guises Wilco have worn. But once you've heard the rest of their discography, it sounds like a weak, insular release. Considering how many bands are pushing themselves and releasing their best music yet (check out the releases from Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and Sunset Rubdown from this year), and how Wilco has the amazingly talented and experimental minded Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche, it's almost a shame that Tweedy was content to coast. Wilco (The Album) is not actually bad, but it is underwhelming, unsurprising, and ultimately unsatisfying.