Getting old with grace isn’t a trivial matter for men or bands. Jeff Tweedy and Wilco have a new coming of age on Sky Blue Sky, an album that represents midlife without crisis; the family sedan over the sports car; the appreciation of what you have and where you are.
Tweedy takes his contentment without complacency and has grown up considerably on Sky Blue Sky, Wilco’s sixth proper release (and first to feature Nels Cline, the band’s touring guitarist). The frontman ditches his metaphor-heavy lyrics for a more direct and earnest approach, a result, he says, of having a more stable life with less to hide. Weighing the value of these plain lyrics against the beauty and wit of his former words might be interesting, but it misses the point. Making a value judgment between his writing styles comes close to tacitly asking him to return to a more tumultuous life, and it’s the cruelest form of entitlement any music fan can possess.
Empathy aside, Wilco is no sacred cow, and Sky Blue Sky isn’t infallible. Cline’s guitar work forces the band down an overly avant-garde path at times, an aesthetic that the rest of the musicians never seem entirely comfortable with. On “Shake It Off,” “Impossible Germany,” and the spazzed-out latter half of “Side with the Seeds,” Cline’s work comes at the expense of the song. His genius is apparent in the measured burst he adds to the rest of the record, especially the Beatles-ish vamp on “Hate It Here” and the bridge-carrying riff from “You Are My Face.”
Sky Blue Sky is a stylistic change for the band, but it is informed by everything it has done in the past. The album really hits its mark, though, when it shows what the future may hold in store. “I Hate It Here,” “Walken” and the first half of “Side with the Seeds” are the most promising moments, with Tweedy as the learned soul singer and the band dutifully falling in behind him.
Sky Blue Sky is Wilco’s first step toward aging well, but it transcends transition and is an album that sounds right in its place and time. The band’s acceptance of a laissez-faire ethos toward change is everywhere on this record and is captured perfectly on “What Light”: “And that’s not wrong or right/ But you can struggle with it all you like/ You’ll only get uptight.”