Ashes of American Flags, or Why you should pay more attention to Wilco
Or, if this were an academic paper, Wilco and song forms: an exercise in subversion?
In a departure from our scheduled broadcast, I bring you the first of what might be a few articles about music that came to my attention over the Christmas/New Year binge.
I’ve been a Wilco fan for years, but in the last weeks of 2009 two things cemented their place amongst my all-time favourite acts: seeing them live for the first time, and getting a copy of Ashes of American Flags. (That it took me three months to finish this article makes it slightly less immediate, but that’s what you get for reading the ramblings of a chronic procrastinator…)
It could be said that the art of subversion is at the heart of alternative country music, assuming you define the genre as a thread that starts with Gram Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music”. For the uninitiated, a brief précis would run something like this: Parsons inhabited the musical, instrumental, sonic world of country music without submitting to its lyrical clichés, and in doing so fashioned something innovative. Before The Gilded Palace of Sin, you didn’t write country songs about the draft or the 1968 DNC riots, nor did you play pedal steel through a fuzzbox or a Leslie rotating speaker cabinet. You certainly didn’t write bizarre, mystical critiques of the Christian capitalist consensus like “Sin City.” Parsons invented something new by hollowing out the country music he loved and filling it with a different kind of writing.
Whether Wilco are in any sense an alternative country band any more is itself up for debate, but an examination of their development and a few of their musical stylings suggests that they embody the very spirit of Parsons’ Cosmic American Music; undermining song forms and using them to great effect precisely because they don’t do what they appear to. It’s well worth acquiring the Wilco discography in chronological order and tracing their evolution from Uncle Tupelo-derived straight-ahead country-rockers to experimental noisemongers, because this journey explains a great deal about lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s understanding of song, of his influences and musical goals. The subtitle of this article is more than just a quip; it is only by paying more attention than most people might that you see the true genius in Ashes of American Flags, their live concert DVD, and in Wilco’s work more generally. Too often, Wilco get dismissed as “that alt-country band that got a bit noisy”. And that is to miss the point entirely.
Tweedy’s songcraft is all about subverting the very song-forms that he both loves and needs. On the one hand, there are clear references to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, to powerpop cult heroes Big Star and to their understanding of the music of Woody Guthrie (for the uninitiated, see Mermaid Avenue). The biggest influence of all is probably Dylan, at least in Tweedy’s presentation and singing style; a certain stylish disregard for singing in tune when it suits, in that Tom Petty-ish way that says “I’m gonna get round to that note in my own sweet time”. And sometimes, it seems like Wilco could have turned out a lot like the Heartbreakers, straight-ahead heartland rock’n’roll for modern America. That they didn’t is all about subversion of those influences and the classic forms and structures they bring. The joy of Wilco is how they twist and turn, one minute slamming the purity of the song home, the next minute obscuring it behind walls of sonic torture and a complete absence of the clarity that was so clear only a couple of verses ago.
Sometimes, the subversion is subtle, or at least relatively restrained. Take, for example, “ELT” from Summerteeth. Not a headline track, a single or a fan favourite, but all the same a gem. The first few seconds encapsulate Wilco’s hybridisation of alt-country and electronic/alt-rock, driven by an irrestistable pop aesthetic. Three notes from the pedal steel ring clear and alone before being swallowed by an advancing wall of synths, surging joyously. The twang of Nashville, the cry of the wide open spaces of the West is strangled by a keyboard patch. The swung rhythms of western have been straightened out and fed steroids, four-to-the-floor and fast.
Other times, the band’s determination to pull apart the simple purity of Tweedy’s songcraft is the focal point, most obvious in the sprawling album-openers “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) and “At Least That’s What You Said” (A Ghost Is Born). Relatively straightforward, even plain, sing-song verses are intercut with sudden, visceral outbursts of aural struggle or echoes of eccentric, junk-percussion and disassembled piano abuse. At times, Tweedy’s vocal seems to be the only constant as he threads a strand of melodic joy through a landscape of sonic carnage. They stand as statements writ large on the gates, as if to say “Abandon hope of simplicity, straightforwardness and sonic pleasantry, all those who enter here.” Greater treasures lie within.
These tracks notwithstanding, “Via Chicago” stands as perhaps the greatest microcosm of Wilco’s output. Were one to hear it on the radio while driving, particularly if you missed the opening moments and weren’t really paying attention to the words, one might well mistake it for a cheerful, elegant little song about Tweedy’s home city, gleaming merrily on the shores of Lake Michigan as it does on the cover of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It is only when the middle of the song is torn apart by a wall of vitriolic crashing, screaming noise that the outlook suddenly darkens. A close re-examination, of course, reveals that the first line is
Dreamed about killing you again last night
And it felt alright to me
The juxtaposition of dark, heavy subject matter and playful, light musical setting that characterises the first moments of Via Chicago is a prime example of Wilco’s subversion of song form. If we believe the music, it really does feel alright.
Death and killing is a theme Tweedy returned to on the latest album in the form of “Bull Black Nova”. A title that looks, at first glance, to be just free-association turns out to be a “bull-black Chevy Nova / Silhouetted by the setting sun”. Guitars and keyboards stretch out tense one-note duels as Tweedy sings with increasing panic about the “blood on the sofa”. Modern-day murder ballads, both.
Subversion of form. It’s a theme that is carried through Ashes of American Flags, notably in their choice of venues. The film was recorded across five venues ranging from the glorious Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, OK to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN via the more modern, compact setting of Washington DC’s 9:30 Club. The Ryman, of course, was once home to the Grand Ole Opry and self-proclaimed “Mother Church of Country”. The opening shots, of the title track performed to an empty Cain’s Ballroom sees giant photographs of stars of yesteryear staring down on the band from the walls with Tweedy dressed up in an embroidered white suit like, well, a latter-day Gram Parsons. These are old places, historic, venerable places shaken to their foundations by maverick electric warriors trampling history underfoot; no doubt they have an acute understanding of the heritage they allude to, but all the same it’s hard not to see the choices as at once resonant and incongruous.
In the live environment, though, it all seems to make sense, contradictions unravel and mesh back together in what seems all of a sudden to be the purest simplicity, as if the songs had always belonged this way. Their set in Leeds was at turns riotous, groovy and playful, a band riding a wave of confidence and mutual self-belief. Nels Cline’s bag had gone missing at the airport, or so we were told, as if this explained the limb-shaking rage he channelled into his solos. This seemed somehow rather quotidian for transatlantic touring musicians. After all the pretension, the artistic infighting, the books and films (I Am Trying To Break Your Heart), perhaps I had been led to expect something a little more, well, affected, a bit more rockstar. Instead, Tweedy and co delivered two hours of controlled chaos, often pushing just far enough but never once overstepping the mark. Just loud enough that you felt moved, not so loud that you left with fewer nerve endings than you had when you began the evening. And if you need a microcosm-metaphor for what Wilco do, that’s as good as any.