As a swell of noise gives way to Jeff Tweedy's recognizable vocals on the first track of Wilco's eighth studio album, The Whole Love, listeners are hit with a familiar realization--this album is different than the rest.
Over the eight-year stretch during which Wilco released Summerteeth (1999), Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002), A Ghost is Born (2004) and Sky Blue Sky (2007), a similar feeling came with every album. Yet 2009's Wilco (The Album) sounded tired with the occasional noise-jam--an obligatory retreading of ground already covered. Fans could be forgiven for thinking that Wilco's experimental days were over.
The Whole Love returns to what makes Wilco great--breaking new ground. The result is an album that sounds only marginally like the band's previous efforts and seems to fit in all the better for it. Where Wilco (The Album) was stagnant, The Whole Love is growing.
This change manifests in the opening of the first song, "Art of Almost." The thumping bass and complex rhythm of the track are more Radiohead than Summerteeth. And with its soft fingerpicking and low vocals playing over an eerie, rising string section, "Black Moon" recalls mid-'70s Pink Floyd as much as anything on Sky Blue Sky. Throughout the record, the production is lusher than on past records. Where Yankee Hotel Foxtrot added noises and voice recordings, The Whole Love adds instrument parts and effects--timpani, organ, echoes and reverbs.
Even at its most experimental, however, the band is still recognizable. Slipped in throughout the record are songs like "I Might," "Dawned on Me" and "Born Alone"--catchy numbers that made Yankee and Ghost so listenable. Add to this category the folk-rock title track, a singable tune with a shuffling beat that would have been at home on nearly any Wilco record. The album closes with the whispery vocals and piano-backed timpani of "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)."
At the crossroads of these two sounds, old and new, is a record that signifies a return of everything Wilco's fans love about the band. The record is solid and listenable, and holds much in common with the band's best, most forward-looking records.