Any ties that Wilco may have had with the alt-country scene have, at least for the time being, been put aside with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy, formerly of the St. Louis-based alt-country darlings Uncle Tupelo, heading a roster including ex-Tupelo drummer Ken Coomer and guitarist John Strirrat, continues to steer Wilco in the direction that their highly-acclaimed 1999 release Summer Teeth seemed to be headed.
The Tupelo twang has been traded in for string arrangements and an often eerie web of electronically generated sounds and feedback, which holds more resemblance to the Talking Heads and late Beatles than to bluegrass. This blending of sound effects and more traditional instrumentation, somewhat discordant at times, forms a teeming backdrop for the album that feels like the kind of isolation that one could experience on a crowded city street. Tweedy’s heartrending, though often cryptic lyrics and melancholy delivery are strangely at home in this crowded electronic milieu.
On the opening track, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” when Tweedy moans out “take off your band aid cuz I don’t believe in touchdowns/ what was I thinking when we said hello,” the listener may have very little idea what he means. But the emotional power of the songs somehow manages to overcome the often-obscure semantics. Such is also the case with the album’s two most beautifully crafted pieces, “Jesus etc.” and “Ashes of American flags,” either or both of which seem to deal obliquely with personal reactions to recent American trauma. The rest of the album similarly gives Wilco a chance to demonstrate their uncanny ability to inject even the most upbeat songs like “Heavy Metal Drummer” with a heavy dose of malaise.
Admittedly, the wall of sound effects does wear a bit thin on some tracks, such as the incessant looping of a woman’s voice repeating the phrase “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” on the song “Poor Places,” which draws too much attention away from an otherwise seamless song. And although the listener may at times wish that the lyrics were a little less obscure, Wilco succeeds in creating a remarkably solid album that opens well and gets better as it goes along.