August 2007

Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
Nonesuch 131388-2
Format: CD
Released: 2007

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

The experimental nature of Wilco’s last three albums probably led its fans, along with somewhat recent converts like me, to expect that the band would make increasingly unusual, inaccessible music. The addition of jazz guitarist Nels Cline, whose work on the Cryptogrammophone label is outside the mainstream, only served to reinforce that notion.

It is somewhat surprising, then, to find Wilco returning to the kind of tight songwriting that made Summerteeth (1999) one of the best albums of the '90s. Sky Blue Sky sounds, at first, like a return to the Wilco’s Americana roots, although you’d have to widen your definition of Americana to include the Band, the Grateful Dead, and Randy Newman.

While Sky Blue Sky contains echoes of the artists just named, Wilco, like all great bands, absorbs its influences and creates something new. It also challenges its fans by confounding expectations. In contrast to the personal and philosophical struggles that marked Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) and A Ghost is Born (2004), Sky Blue Sky is more upbeat, suggesting that the band’s leader, Jeff Tweedy, has come to terms with life’s occasional difficulties. This positive attitude finds its way into the songs, which are buoyant and upbeat but never sappy. The disc has an appealing playfulness, a joy in the details that bubble up in the recording, such as the strings in "Either Way" that beautifully frame Nels Cline’s guitar solo, or the dual guitar lines in "Impossible Germany," which recall the early Allman Brothers.

Sky Blue Sky is a beautifully layered recording, with Tweedy’s vocals sharply centered. The disc offers further proof that Wilco is certainly the most innovative, and maybe even the best rock‘n’roll band in America right now.