In one of my sporadic blogscursions, I happened to stop by The Rest Is Noise, the web presence of New Yorker critic Alex Ross. Recounting a road trip through the South, Ross mentions that he listened to the most recent Wilco album three times while driving through Kentucky. I recently picked that record up, and, like Ross, I found its simplicity and transparency surprising. Critical response to the album, entitled Sky Blue Sky, has been mixed; for our purposes, however, all you need to know is that Wilco’s previous efforts have articulated a trend toward noise, experimentation, and abstraction—and that the new release represents either a welcome clarification or a huge step backwards. Personally, I’m in the latter camp.
I’m curious, however, about how Sky Blue Sky might have been received if it had been written and recorded by another band. It’s likely that the peanut gallery would have appreciated a collection of solid, nostalgic, FM-friendly guitar-driven tunes by an unknown band more than a bowl of reactionary country-rock soup by a once-proud indie blue chip. On the other hand, I think it’s also possible that Sky Blue Sky is so likable because we’re on guard as soon as we hear it: Its simplicity seems too simple, and it must be concealing something, something maybe even weirder than the band’s earlier albums, in whose context we have to evaluate this new one. What is it about Sky Blue Sky, in other words, that continues the Wilco project? How does this new clause fit into the Wilco mission statement? The infuriating thing, of course, is that it might not.
This phenomenon is not unique to pop music. When I first heard Boulez’s Sur Incises, I wondered where the fire went: The piece is beautiful, no question, but it doesn’t move like his old ones used to. It doesn’t seem to have the same tension against the possible that makes Le Marteau and Éclat. But is it possible that Sur Incises is a clarification of something that Le Marteau had wanted to become, but wasn’t ready to be yet, and we just haven’t learned to listen to it correctly? Is Sky Blue Sky an experimental record that happens to sound just like a traditional one, as if the collected scaffolding and masking tape that gave Wilco’s back catalogue its interesting shape have been cleared away to reveal something that’s both the same and different, and is the burden of understanding it on us?
I doubt it. But I could be convinced.