By Mark Guarino
Wilco arrives at its first-ever moment of Zen at the onset of “Sky Blue Sky” (Nonesuch), its new album, in stores today. “Maybe the sun will shine today/the clouds will roll away,” leader Jeff Tweedy sings above a gently picked guitar. The band enters the room quietly. Tweedy continues until he reaches an awakening: “I will try to understand/everything has its plan.” From there, guitarist Nels Cline takes over, politely and very neatly bending notes left and right so they sparkle and tumble back to the singer. The song makes taking your time sound like bliss, much like the Grateful Dead used to in their “American Beauty” days.
What a long, strange trip it’s been. Welcome to the new direction of this Chicago band, now several permutations away from its first album, 12 years ago. In the recent past, when Wilco seemed determined to alienate itself from its alt-country roots and expand its creative boundaries, the band threw its influences into the grinder and out came noise experiments, word collages and quixotic sonics. The adventuresome direction groomed new fans and press respect, even though the perspective of time showed they were too self-conscious, the new music almost a dare.
“Sky Blue Sky” is the sound of a band feeling more comfortable in its own skin. The unofficial second studio effort featuring this current line-up of six coolly versatile musicians, “Sky” exhales serenely. Tweedy pivots back to his band’s folk roots, but this time around, the acoustic simplicity of minor songs like “Please Be Patient With Me” feels somewhat slight, almost like afterthoughts. The core turn of event in this Wilco incarnation happens in the songs that start gently but turn unexpected corners. Tweedy’s secret weapon turns out to be guitarist Cline who steps forward, becoming the real star of “Sky.” Call it whatever you want — prog-folk, maybe? — but his instincts make a ho-hum album lively and at times, staggering.
Three songs — “Impossible Germany,” “Side With the Seeds” and “Walken” — anchor the remaining nine. “Walken,” upbeat country-rock with a plucky piano and flighty pedal steel guitar, explodes with funky twin guitars that drive it to the finish line. “Side With the Seeds” seems to exist for Cline’s back and forth guitar flourishes while “Impossible Germany,” the longest song on “Sky” at nearly six minutes, bursts with pretty, celestial embellishments, the melody never vanishing. These are songs that will become pinnacles of Wilco’s future live shows, showing this band’s wide-open vocabulary and seamless playing.
Tweedy steps up his scratchy vocals but he’s not a soul man, even though his recent R&B intentions make the attempt. Songs like “Hate It Here” make you wish Otis Clay would step in and take over. Tweedy’s numb love lyrics don’t reveal anything new; he’s still home alone wishing he wasn’t. He finds good company on these songs; together they reach mellow gold.