Wilco – Cruel Country – Album Review
by Killian Laher
Far from being the straight country album that the title and numerous interviews have implied, Wilco’s 12th album is more of a continuation of the folky, laid back aesthetic which began with 2016’s Schmilco, an album which acted as a reset for them. Most of these tracks, recorded live in-studio, are amiable, understated acoustic strums, with occasional piano and minimal percussion. There is a lot to digest here with 21 tracks. What strikes you about it is how gentle, quiet and… comforting it sounds. They tick the country box early on, with the twangy shuffle of the title track, and this resurfaces on A Lifetime To Find and Country Song Upside Down. But for the most part, it’s business as usual.
Much of it sounds unremarkable initially until you notice touches like the gorgeous guitar midway through Hints, or the picked acoustic guitars on Ambulance, or how the presence of brass makes Darkness Is Cheap just that bit more resonant. The downcast The Empty Condor is an early highlight, a slow-paced strum full of longing with a terrific guitar break midway through. It’s highly likely this will be considered one of the great Wilco songs in future years. But in general, the mood on the album is upbeat. There are a couple of throwaways like All Across The World and the stop-start Falling Apart (Right Now), which act to break up the mood of the album. The band deliver some fine harmonies on the jammy Bird Without A Tail / Base of My Skull. There is a lot going on in this track, shifting from singalong to a gorgeous midsection where guitars once again are given a chance to shine, before abruptly lurching back into the chorus, another great moment on this album.
Highlights abound, Taking It Out On You and a Hearts Hard To Find are a pair of sunlit strums evoking some of Tom Petty’s better moments, while the brooding The Universe is one of those great state of the nation songs, the addition of keyboards enhance it, you won’t want this one to end. Those who like their Wilco a little more experimental have slim pickings here, save a bit of crackling underneath the reverb-heavy centrepiece Many Worlds. This lengthy track opens up as a piano ballad until halfway through the band joins in, with some gorgeous guitar interplay, making this another real highlight. The noise returns on the otherwise unremarkable final track The Plains, without dominating the song.
Some will consider this album the sound of the band treading water, initially for some this will sound a bit bland. And there’s a lot of it here to digest. But as with Schmilco and Ode to Joy, gradually these songs begin to seep into your soul. It seems to be currently only available on download.
Taking It Out On You
Categories: Album Reviews, Header, Music
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