September 27, 2011 / 8:45 PM / 8 years ago

Review: Wilco's "Whole Love" has shades of Beatles

LOS ANGELES ( - Wilco’s eighth album, “The Whole Love,” could almost be called “The Whole Enchilada,” so thoroughly does it summarize the disparate sides the beloved band has developed over the last 16 years.

Jeff Tweedy (C), John Stirratt (R) and Nels Cline (L) of Wilco perform "Broken Arrow" at the 2010 MusiCares Person of the Year tribute honoring recording artist Neil Young in Los Angeles January 29, 2010. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

If you relished the experimental “Hotel Yankee Foxtrot” — the 2001 breakthrough that made them the darlings of the rock intelligentsia and even got them classified as America’s own Radiohead — then you’ll love the seven-minute opening cut.

A headphones must, “Art of Almost” opens with a gurgle of indeterminate electronic noise and time signature-defying drum pattern before eventually ramping up into a frantic guitar-freakout climax.

But don’t get too attached to that mind-blower, because nothing else on the album sounds remotely like it. Jeff Tweedy is nothing if not the master of the artful fake-out.

Much of the rest of “The Whole Love” skews closer to the group’s roots-rock beginnings, including some delicate, finger-picking tracks that fit right into the Americana genre Wilco seemed determined to shun for a while. It’s as if Tweedy deliberately wanted to throw anyone who might come looking for that stuff off the scent by placing the most potentially alienating, anti-acoustic epic right at the beginning.

Somewhere between his country-rock and electronica inclinations, you suspect Tweedy must be more of a Beatles buff than previously imagined. That’s partly because of the “White Album”-style unpredictability. And it’s partly because the wispy, piano-driven, bitter “Sunloathe” is so Lennon-esque, in comparison to the upbeat distinctly old-fashioned “Capitol City,” which sounds like Paul Westerberg doing Paul McCartney doing the ‘30s.

Anyone scared off by Wilco’s relatively avant-garde phase in the early ‘00s may want to face their phobias and check out the new album’s relatively straightforward guitar rockers. “Dawned on Me” starts off sounding like a slowed down version of Supergrass’ power-pop classic “Alright” before developing its own melodic strengths. The deceptively sunny-sounding, death-themed “Born Alone” could be the best Shins outtake we’ve never heard.

Amid all the stylistic expansion and free-association lyrics, Tweedy isn’t afraid to break your heart with a handful of back-porch ballads.

With a bare overlay of sad steel guitar and an eventual string section, “Black Moon” is ever bit as haunting as you’d hope from that promising title. He adopts a falsetto to skip merrily through the wounded title cut, where, having been newly “set free,” Tweedy nonetheless vows to “still love you to death/And I won’t ever forget how.” Acoustic as it is, the tune somehow ends with some “Penny Lane”-worthy outro flourishes.

The closer, “One Sunday Morning,” is epic only in length — just over 12 minutes — but utterly simple in style. Tweedy’s verses have a son mourning and celebrating the dead father who taught him intolerance. (Is the song’s shunned son gay? It seems a strong possibility, though Tweedy isn’t about to get that direct.) The lyrical piano that fills out the instrumental closing minutes couldn’t be farther than the percolating synthesizer beeps that open the album.

It’s a quiet stunner, and not because Wilco is pushing any particular envelopes in the moment, other than maybe emotional ones.

After leaping around between styles through most of their catalog, Wilco now seem comfortable having it all. “Kid A-mericana,” anyone?

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