Wilco, ‘Cruel Country': Album Review
It was only a matter of time before Wilco got back to where they started. They never really left the Americana roots blend of their earliest records behind; they merely shaped them into new but vaguely familiar forms over the past two decades. From at least 2001's masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, forward – and, really, it can be traced back to 1999's Summerteeth, if not before – the Jeff Tweedy-led band has made experimental-leaning alternative rock its focus.
On their 12th album, the double-LP Cruel Country, Wilco tie together a loose concept about the history of the United States with 21 songs that travel the musical middle ground between alt-country debut A.M. and art-rock zenith A Ghost Is Born. Like their previous album, 2019's Ode to Joy, which tried to make sense of a pre-pandemic world that was already spiraling out of control, Cruel Country is infused with political subtext that's unavoidable. This time out, though, Wilco greet their homeland with native folk-country sounds that make the work more inviting.
It's not so much a step back as it is a reevaluation nearly 30 years later. Tweedy has said he was uncomfortable with Wilco being called a country band early in their career but has since come around and accepted the fluidity the genre can offer. Cruel Country takes full advantage of that opportunity. It's a country album insomuch Tweedy's previous band, Uncle Tupelo, was country. In other words, it's close enough to fit into the genre but rarely lets its limits get in the way of their art.
Acoustic guitars, lightly galloping percussion and lap steel are woven throughout songs like the opening "I Am My Mother," the spare "The Universe," the '70s throwback "Falling Apart (Right Now)" and "Tonight's the Day," which sounds like a dark-hued leftover from Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers. And if melodies don't stand out as they should, it's been a long while since the intricate textures and humming soundscapes of Wilco tunes have taken a backseat to conventional song structure. Don't expect to hear anything here on country radio anytime soon.
Wilco recorded most of Cruel Country live with few overdubs, making it their most organic-sounding LP since A.M. It's overlong, though, and whatever narrative may exist is held together by the laid-back, late-night closeness of the performances. But the best songs – "Hints," "Tired of Taking It Out on You," the nearly eight-minute "Many Worlds" – reveal a band willing to break from its recent past to re-explore a distant one. Getting back to this place is part of their ongoing journey.