ither hardcore Wilco haters don’t exist or they’re incredibly bad at mobilizing. While massive backlash campaigns have been mounted for bands with mere fractions of their commercial and critical success, the worst Wilco gets is the accusation that they’re really just safe-as-milk “experimental” rock for when Volvo owners and NPR listeners want to let loose. As if you wouldn’t be thrilled if your pops was a fan. Strangely, Sky Blue Sky seems to willfully bait their small amount of detractors into pistols at dawn. Opener “Either Way” boasts appropriately non-committal lyrics (“maybe the sun will shine today”), a lightly tapped backbeat, washes of Moog strings, and a virtuosic yet tasteful series of guitar runs from new full-time band member Nels Cline. It’s a lovely song, no doubt, but considering that Sky Blue Sky is the first Wilco album you can buy in Starbucks, it’s a little too on the nose for comfort.
So is this Wilco in 2007: playing Jackson Browne covers, beautiful, and stoned? Therein lies the strange, slippery conundrum with Sky Blue Sky. While there are blatant nods to ’70s touchstones like California AM gold and razor’s edge AOR, Wilco sometimes fail to dig deeper than its coke-cutting surface. Fleetwood Mac had the melody, and Steely Dan had the subversive lyricism, but Jeff Tweedy aims for a castrated Dire Straits that embraces an aw-shucks everyman persona that rubs against some serious guitar pyrotechnics. “Hate It Here” is a damn goldmine for armchair psychologists and internet zingers with its belabored catalog of time-killing, soul-sapping chores around the house that only serve as distractions from boredom and despair. And while you have to admit he’s dealing with age-appropriate concerns, Tweedy takes one of the most emotionally nuanced songs of recent vintage (Mountains Goats’ “Woke Up New”) and strips it of all ambivalence to the point where it could pass for a light beer commercial.
It’s not the only time on Sky Blue Sky that Tweedy seems to ignore the fourth wall altogether. The title of the plaintive “Be Patient With Me” is a dead giveaway, but the question is just how patient? On a micro scale, it’s often a matter of minutes and it pays off richly; “You Are My Face” and soul survivor “Side With The Seeds” are equal parts sweet and sour, with plangent vocal turns turning into broiling hot fuzz-guitar workouts. But sometimes you get the luded-out funk of “Shake It Off,” which stretches its legs out far too much to make its punctuated climax really pay off. Likewise, less tolerant Wilco fans might altogether miss the stein-swinging chorale of first single “What Light,” which comes as the eleventh song on a record that contains the band’s fewest epics since A.M. and yet feels like the longest.
But in the macro sense, the patience the listener might really need can be described as such: save the fifteen bucks, because these will sound great once you’ve dropped thirty on Ticketmaster. And that’s where the real frustration of Sky Blue Sky really sinks in: Kicking Television presented Wilco Mk. II in all of its key-trilling, fretboard-smoking glory, while the songs here demand undivided attention that is rewarded less often than we’ve come to expect. And yet, just about everything on Sky Blue Sky, even soft-shoe skiffles like the title track, will likely sound better live. Typical is “Impossible Germany,” which has a triple-pronged axe coda that’s meant for open-air arena fairgrounds, but to get to that point, there’s a lazy, borderline mindless tune resting among guitar notes that flicker like brief fits of wakefulness during a daytime nap.
And while Sky Blue Sky is nowhere near a failure as a record, it’s a bit of a worrying development. Wilco had been called the American Radiohead not because they shared a whole lot in common sonically, but because they’ve developed a rewarding, diverse discography through artistic restlessness where nearly everything can stake a claim as the pinnacle of their career. But maybe in shooting for the airlocked Los Angeles sound, they missed and hit Laurel Canyon; yeah, the Grateful Dead always brought it live, but after a while, their records stopped being little more than excuses to hit the road again. If that’s where Wilco’s headed, bully for them, and let’s hope they’ll keep “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” under a half hour. But it won’t make a long, slow fade as a studio entity any less disappointing considering what they’re capable of.