Together At Last, the new solo record from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, might seem unnecessary at first blush. Tweedy’s first album on his own provides acoustic renditions of songs he’s already released, most of them with Wilco, but some coming from his time in bands Golden Smog and Loose Fur. Plus, we’ve got the Sunken Treasure DVD recounting one of Tweedy’s many solo tours, to capture him as a solo performer. Once you get into this sweet, intimate album though, it becomes its own quiet world. For one, it reflects the band’s generous nature in dealing with their back catalog. Together At Last is the first in a planned series called the Loft Acoustic Sessions. More than that, it acts as a subtle antidote to some overriding narratives we’ve attached to Wilco, especially since the release of their classic, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
In the wake of that album — complete with a complicated backstory involving sort-of-swapping labels and dropping band member Jay Bennett — Wilco got dubbed, among other things, the “American Radiohead.” Aside from the laziness of that moniker, it hung heavy on the band’s neck for a while. They were all of a sudden sonic experimenters, and all future albums would be judged on how much further they pushed the band’s sound. This is a common expectation put on bands and one that, at some point in the timeline, becomes less about the music and more about the listener’s need to be able to recognize and identify with the new. In Wilco’s case, it discounted the textural work they had already put in: a few dark turns as far back as A.M.‘s “Dash 7”, the crumbling structures that cracked open Being There, the squall and negative space of the shadowy moments of the otherwise bright Summerteeth. The narrative around Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was thus, in retrospect, one of convenience for pop culture and for the marketplace.
But the “American Radiohead” descriptor also ignores what Radiohead and Wilco actually have in common. Under all the sonics — though the two make different layers, to be sure — both bands are all about the song. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is great not just because of its strata of sound, but also because there are great songs when you peel it all back. (The same is true of OK Computer, an album that turns 20 this year.)
Together At Last makes this argument plain. You will hear little on this record besides Tweedy’s voice and an acoustic guitar. Maybe the occasional harmonica. And you’ll also rarely hear Tweedy really belt it out. This is an insistently quiet record, and that quiet works. Even when the album starts with something as unsurprising as “Via Chicago.” The version on Summerteeth is pretty much acoustic as well, but it feels even sparer here, stripped to the bone, with nothing but a plaintive harmonica the adorn it. Tweedy plays quiet as tension on this song, so when he nearly whispers “searching for a home, searching for a home, searching for a home, Via Chicago / I’m coming home,” the aching in those lines is clear and direct. That directness, of delivery and emotion, carries these songs well. “Muzzle of Bees” — which swelled and bloomed on A Ghost is Born — is chilling and hushed here. Closer “Sky Blue Sky” pulls off a similar trick, turning the sepia tones of the album version into something more grey, a new shade of melancholy.
The risk on this record, if there is one, might be in playing to too many favorites. But each well-known song lands well. “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” ignores the YHF fuzz and scrape and feels fresh as a result. “Ashes of American Flags” once again makes a case for being a top-5 all-time Wilco song, as the minor-key melody and odd, worn lyrics carry the day. The hits don’t always fare this well — “Hummingbird” is in start contract to the piano-y A Ghost is Born version, but feels more like a demo than anything else on the record — but they never feel tired or flat.
In fact, it’s some of the less-expected tracks that don’t quite come together. “Lost Love,” originally recorded for Golden Smog, is a decent early entry on Together At Last, but it also feels like a song that’s been lapped by these other songs written layer in Tweedy’s career. “Dawned On Me”, from Wilco’s The Whole Love, is the one song that doesn’t quite live as well outside the crunchy layers of its album version. But for these songs which work, just not as well as others, there’s also the great version of “Laminated Cat.” This song was given an experimental jam on Loose Fur‘s debut album, and other versions of it have popped up live and in bootlegs of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot demos. But this solo version seems to be the songs definitive home, all sweet finger picking and soft nostalgia.
Not only does Together At Last make the claim that Wilco’s strength is the structures and not always the experiments, but sometimes it also sheds new light on songs. Nowhere is this clearer than “I’m Always In Love,” where Tweedy strips away the songs power-pop glitz and in turn changes the mood. As he sings “I worry, I’m always in love,” in this version, the wistful feel of the album track gets swapped for anxiety. It’s not worry that he’s always in love. The worry and being in love feel, in the moment this songs captures, like the same thing.
For Wilco fans, the songs here won’t surprise. But the effectiveness of these performances, the intimacy of the quiet, and the small, new lights they shed on tunes they’ve long known all makes this a worthwhile record. It’s a record of execution over ambition, which makes sense for a guy fronting a band that long ago stopped worrying about shocking us with its sound and stuck to honing its songwriting chops. Wilco’s output may always live in the shadow of an album that came out 15 years ago, but if that means we miss this kind of satisfying, even comforting offering, then maybe that shadow is doing us all a disservice.
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