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Wilco – Cruel County

May 27, 2022
Wilco: Cruel County (dBpm Records 5/27/22)

I love Wilco, but there has been a sameness to their recent albums – they were not bad, just unremarkable (fortunately the live shows have been transcendent over the last decad). On first listen, Cruel Country breaks that pattern: this is an engaging, yet subtle masterpiece. On subsequent listens it just gets better – it continues to grow on you.

Wilco’s origin is in the alt-country movement, but by their second album they were clearly not going to be bound by that. Cruel Country embraces alt-country without being beholden to early Wilco or Uncle Tupelo. Is this Wilco going “country” or going back to their alt-country roots? Country is in the album title and implied in the doily cover art. There are country elements in the album (twangy guitars and adult lyrics).

“There have been elements of country music in everything we’ve ever done,” per Jeff Tweedy said in the pre-release hype for the album. “We’ve never been particularly comfortable with accepting that definition, the idea that I was making country music. But now, having been around the block a few times, we’re finding it exhilarating to free ourselves within the form, and embrace the simple limitation of calling the music we’re making country.”

My conclusion is Cruel Country is country music (in the non-Nashville alt-county/Americana sense that Tweedy helped invent), but it is also a double meaning: it is music about our country. Wilco are country like the Grateful Dead are country: they are informed and influenced by it, they borrow from the country palate and they deconstruct it and reassemble something new. Tweedy tips his hand in his press release:

In spite of ourselves, and all of our concerns and efforts to distract, we had made an ‘American music’ album about ‘America.’

Per their website: “The double album features 21 songs recorded with all 6 members of the band together at The Loft.” That is significant in that the band has not been altogether in the studio since recording Sky Blue Sky in 2007. As much as Wilco is Jeff Tweedy, Wilco is a band. Cruel Country sounds like a band at the height of its powers: a firm leader and a supportive set of players dedicated to making great songs and not showing off their instrumental prowess. This is a hefty album – the 21 songs spread over an hour and a quarter – this requires a commitment to consume.

Lyrically Tweedy is lamenting our fractured times in America, like in “Hints” were he says:

There is no middle when the other side
Would rather kill than compromise

Or in the titular track:

I love my country like a little boy
Red, white, and blue

I love my country stupid and cruel
Red, white, and blue

But it is also an interior album, like “Tired Of Taking It Out On You” that juxtapositions gorgeous sounding music with heavy self-aware lyrics:

Freeze my warmth away
Tear the tears out of your quiet face
I can’t take the way I am with you
Or recreate things we used to do
I’m tired of taking it out on you

Musically the album is deceiving – at first listen it sounds acoustic and mellow, but after more careful listens it is as sonically as adventurous as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A great example is the epic “Many Worlds” that displays everything that is sonically brilliant about Wilco. And who knew Nels Cline, noise guitarist extraordinaire, was a closet country picker.

It is great to have Wilco back at full strength. Not that they were ever gone or had started to suck, but Cruel Country is better than anything they have done in the last decade. This is an early contender for my album of 2022. Some good medicine for our sick times.

Cruel Country is only available via digital channels at release and again per their website: “Yes, CD and LP editions are in the works, but we’ll spare you the supply chain talk.”

From → Music Reviews

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