Wilco, ‘Cousin': Album Review
Wilco spent years trying to shake off the Americana tag that's dogged them from the start of their career before they finally embraced it with a full-force hug on 2022's Cruel Country. Both proactive and reactionary, the double album flipped country music upside down and sideways as Jeff Tweedy and company stripped down for their most organic-sounding album since they got experimentally weird following 1995's fairly conventional debut, A.M.
But true to form, Cousin – Cruel Country's follow-up, and Wilco's 13th LP overall – takes a different path on a career that's strayed far from the expected ever since Wilco holed up in a studio for their first double album, 1996's rock 'n' roll history lesson Being There. The left turns and sonic highways of albums such as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost Is Born and The Whole Love have softened the surprise factor a bit, but part of the band's appeal is that none of their records sounds like the one before it.
Cousin is another aural tour de force, this time overseen by experimental Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon, the first time Wilco has worked with an outside producer in almost 20 years. From the opening track "Infinite Surprise" – all ticking clocks, heartbeat percussion and ambient hums working toward a slow build – the band is back in their familiar post-YHF territory, as strangled guitars make their entrance at the halfway point of the nearly six-minute song.
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Tweedy, purposely so, barely works up emotion in "Ten Dead," a summary of modern indifference; "Meant to Be," the album's chugging closing song, surveys the cost of that indifference with the hope of making things right. And that's the core theme of Cousin: fixing the state of the human condition against often insurmountable hurdles. The music, drifting among the avant-pop playground Wilco has spent the past two decades traversing, suits the occasionally despairing, often hopeful mood. As much as Cruel Country cleared the air regarding a part of their past, Cousin mostly dispels another chapter in Wilco's history, that of a stubbornly determined band working without compromise.
"It's too late to be unclear," Tweedy sings in "Evicted," one of the album's most musically and lyrically direct songs. While tangled connections surface again in Cousin's title song, unlike 2019's Ode to Joy – with its disheartened Trump-era uncertainties for the future – there's an optimism here that everything will turn out OK in the end. Not even the typically hazy soundscapes can obscure that message.