2009's musical slate held more promise for me, with new albums from Bruce Springsteen, U2, Pete Yorn, Wilco, the Avett Brothers, BNL, and others. Neither the Springsteen nor the U2 managed to floor me. The Boss's Working on a Dream had some gems, but a lot of the album felt underdeveloped and "Queen of the Supermarket" swiped the title of "Worst Springsteen Song Ever" from "Murder, Inc." who had held it after a knock-down-drag-out match with "57 Channels."
Which brings me to a question I've had for a long time: Why is it that even the most talented songwriters will include an awful song(s) on an album, apparently oblivious to its crappiness? I mean, crappy bands are crappy because they write crappy songs. and having not ever written a good song, they happily go about releasing more of the same crap, not knowing it's crap. (Yes, I know, that was a crappy sentence). But how can a guy like Springsteen, a man who has written some of the greatest rock tunes of the past thirty years, not know when he's written a horrible song? Or maybe he does know and just doesn't care because he knows it doesn't impact his standing as an icon, like someone who works out rigorously and doesn't mind indulging in a Krispy Kreme or two occasionally, knowing it won't impact his physique. Or he knows and just laughs off critics, "You guys go write something worth carrying the musical jock strap of "Born to Run," then you can come back and tell me this song stinks."
As for U2, the pre-album hype from PR folks, music writers, and Bono himself, would have had you believe No Line on the Horizon was a return to Achtung Baby era experimenting. Sure, every nook and cranny is filled with some sort of synth, loop, blip, or fuzz, but the album is more a diluted combination of Achtung Baby and their soaring arena rock than anything novel or moving. Like the Springsteen album, this album has a couple of standouts and I played it regularly in my car for two weeks only to tuck it into my CD case not to listen to it since.
Thankfully, the two June releases I had looked forward to--Pete Yorn's Back and Fourth and Wilco's Wilco (the album)--have provided musical delight aplenty during my time on the road the past few weeks. It took me a while to warm up to the Yorn album. It's easily the most mellow album he's made. "Rocking" could be used to describe only two-three of the ten songs, and that's using the term loosely. Whatever A&R guy decided on "Don't Wanna Cry for You" as the lead single should be looking for another line of work. The song is one of Yorn's dullest songs ever. Nonetheless, the rest of the album contains some of the best songs he's ever written--"Paradise Cove," "Country," "Social Development Dance," and "Long Time Nothing New"--as well as the uber catchy "Shotgun," which anyone with at least one good ear knows would've made for a better single. The album isn't as good as musicforthemorningafter (that album is basically flawless--one of my favorites of the decade), but it outshines Day I Forgot (an album mostly worth forgetting) and Nightcrawler, which had some great tunes but was really uneven.
Wilco's 2007 laid back, guitar-noodling foray Sky Blue Sky left plenty of long-time fans yearning for the band's previous style. But which style? A.M.'s alt-country, Being There's Americana and rock, Summerteeth's sublime pop, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's spare, sometimes beautiful/sometimes abrasive experimental folk rock, or A Ghost Is Born's part YHF reheated, part Neil Young and Crazy Horse? The thing is, some segment of Wilco's fanbase has gotten dismayed over every stylistic turn. Some of them have given up the band while others have stuck around to see what's next. I was ambivalent towards Sky Blue Sky initially, but it grew on me, particularly after seeing the band perform many of the songs live.
Enter their new album, Wilco (the album). Having listened to the album a dozen times or so now, I think it's good but not great. If it were Wilco (the EP), it would be incredible. Four songs into the album I was ready possibly to rank it at the bottom of my top tier Wilco albums (Summerteeth, YHF, Being There). The four-song stretch culminates with "Bull Black Nova," with the band scoring a 9.9 for artistic merit and 10.0 for badassness.
After that point the album loses steam. "You and I" seems like it ought to be better than it is. The bridge is terrific, but had a resurrected Janis Joplin joined Tweedy instead of Feist, even she couldn't have made singing "You and I" sixty-three times any more compelling.
I don't really understand the lead single choice here either. Wilco isn't a singles or radio band anyway, so maybe it doesn't matter, but the melody in the verses of "You Never Know" is far stronger than the chorus. Tweedy's repeated "I don't care anymore" sums up my feelings as I reach for the skip button with thirty seconds left in the song every other time I listen to it.
After that it's back-to-back ballads with "Country Disappearded" and "Solitaire." I like them both, especially "Solitaire," but I quibble with placing them consecutively. "I'll Fight" is a good tune, but I could take or leave "Sonny Feeling" and "Everlasting" is a slightly schmaltzy, poor man's version of "On and On." I can't even explain why I don't care much for "Sonny Feeling." It's like when you meet a girl during your single days. She's attractive, she's smart, she likes good music, yet for whatever reason you don't feel any sort of spark. But you convince yourself you should go on a couple dates with her because dating her seems like the obvious choice on paper. A few dates and fewer dollars later, still nothing.
If Wilco (the album) were an NBA stat line, it would be something along the lines of 18 points (9-18 FG), 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 3 turnovers. If Brian Scalabrine puts up that line, it's a career game, and when you see it on Sportscenter, your first thought is their graphics guy must be drunk. If Lebron James puts up the same line, it's a good game, but not "King James" material. In the music world, Wilco is far closer to being Lebron James than Brian Scalabrine, so an album like Wilco isn't going to leave many fans with their jaws dropped. Of their seven studio albums, I rank this one sixth. Still, even with a handful of weak songs dragging down the back half, the core of good (and a couple great) songs have kept me coming back so far.