At some point in the past decade, Wilco went from being America's #1 forward thinking, progressive, experimental-pop band behind a string of masterpieces to... being America's #1 backward looking, hard touring, dad-rock band behind kind-of-OK craftsman-like work of Sky Blue Sky (underrated! secretly awesome!) and the kind-of-self titled Wilco (The Album). Whether this transition took place as a result of Jeff Tweedy's successful rehab, or just as a natural growth of the band itself, it's hard to say. What I do know is that Wilco has, with The Whole Love, gone from one of those bands-I-love-to-love to being one of those bands-I-still-want-to-love-but-don't.
Wilco (The Album) left me a bit bored. I also can't seem to remember many songs from it, other than the meta-titled 'Wilco (The Song)' and experimental throwback 'Bull Black Nova', a sort of more nervous/anxious sequel to the superior 'Spiders (Kidsmoke)' from A Ghost Is Born. See, Wilco are at their best when they're reaching or expanding, and to see them spend another album coasting is a disappointment. The only new-sounding experimental parts of The Whole Love essentially boil down to the first and last tracks, which showcase Wilco's jammy, guitar-heroics side ('Art Of Almost') and their multi-part, slow-build epic stuff ('One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)'). In between, though, it's just a lot of Wilco sounding like Wilco all thrown into a blender together. 'I Might' recalls the retro, raucous edge of some Summerteeth and Being There tracks mixed with some Sky Blue Sky looseness. 'Black Moon', meanwhile, sounds like a mix between the haunted ballads of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (in particular 'Radio Cure') with the jaunty alt.country stuff of A.M.
All told, however, this album is neither a step forward nor a modest return to form. I hate feeling this way about The Whole Love because it has got some excellent songs, such as career highlights like 'Born Alone' and the wonderfully, well, jaunty 'Capitol City' which could pass for a 1930s pop tune. Indeed, there's nothing inherently wrong with this record at all. It's simply that, if this is what passes for experimental and/or new from Wilco, they aren't really trying any more. A lesser band could never pull off a track like 'Rising Red Lung', but Wilco somehow turn it into an oddly unmemorable reminder of better moments from their past. Lyrically, The Whole Love leans toward the less abstract and has a close to 50/50 split between passable verses and forgivable clunkers. It isn't that Jeff Tweedy isn't trying, he just doesn't seem to be trying very hard.
Which is precisely the core of my issue with The Whole Love. It isn't the band sounding like this or that album one at a time, as it was on Wilco (The Album), so much as it is Wilco kind of smashing all of their old albums together and odd combinations of those coming out here and there. The more I listen to it, the more I like it, admittedly. 'Whole Love', maudlin lyrics aside, is simply too much fun to pass up. But the album as a whole also increasingly feels like if I give this record a full score it would be like rewarding someone for winning a race by coasting for the last half-mile just to show off how much of a lead they had. Yes, Wilco, you used to forward thinking; you used to be so far ahead of us back in 2001-2004. But we've long since caught up.
3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5