25 Masterworks – Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

My Spin on Masterworks: 1 of 25

Wilco

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Nonesuch Records, 2002

1 WilcoI wouldn’t say that this is applicable every time, but generally in contemporary culture, questions are more rewarding to receive than answers. Possibly due to the Internet-assisted access to impenetrably vast vaults of information, questions are what drive us to scrutinise works of art and return to them repeatedly, unearthing various (and frequently contradictory) layers of meaning which are fascinating, maddening, and enlightening. While the surface charms of a particular album or film are what hook audiences in to begin with, it’s the tantalising offer of mysteries to be unravelled which keeps them coming back for more.

Wilco’s fourth album served as my introduction to the Chicago band, and I first heard Yankee Hotel Foxtrot while commuting to London in the summer of 2013. As I was jostled in the carriage amid the businesspeople and early-bird tourists, the train pulled away to the opening chug of ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’. (For the first few weeks, the album’s crisply-rendered acoustic guitars made me think of train tracks.) From the first listen, I knew that this was music I liked. But as mentioned above, it was only upon discovering the layers beneath the album that I became genuinely captivated by what I was hearing.

The myths shrouding Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are fascinating to research: there are secrets and backstories to delve into everywhere one could care to look. It was recorded before – but released after – the events of 9/11. There’s that front cover, which features a monochrome image of Chicago’s Marina City. We can recount the eleventh-hour firing of one of the band’s creative keystones (Jay Bennett), as well as the turbulent replacement of drummer Ken Coomer with Glenn Kotche. And of course, there are those impenetrable squiggles of noise which pockmark the end of several songs like twisted codas. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg, and that’s before trying to work out which of them were legitimately understood by the members of Wilco at the time. How much were they aware of producing this album? Where do the facts end and the conspiracy theories and wild coincidences begin?

Along with the 9/11 theories, the most-discussed facet of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is its incorporation of extracts from shortwave radio stations. The patchwork assembly of these extracts may have sparked a feud with cataloguer Akin Fernandez upon the 1 Wilco 2002album’s release, but they infinitely add to the mythos of the album, providing more threads to follow, but ultimately few concrete answers. Engineered by Bennett and impeccably mixed by Jim O’Rourke, it shouldn’t be forgotten just how beautiful Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sounds in terms of its production, but its discordant moments are just as enriching as its clear melodies. It makes us question what’s really going on here; what’s the underlying meaning? Is there even one at all, or is this just flippant anarchism?

All this head-scratching wouldn’t seem half as stimulating if the music itself wasn’t engaging, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is triumphant from start-to-finish. ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’ stands as one of the boldest and most unique album openers in the history of pop music, as well as an incredibly powerful collage of sound in its own right. As it drags itself towards a yawning crevasse of noise, the recurring sounds of alarm bells, tumbling piano keys and – supposedly – the tinkle of glass bottles all resemble screws unfastening themselves in the mind of the protagonist. And speaking of, Jeff Tweedy begins Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with an absolutely staggering opening verse, uttered in a husky croak:

I am an American aquarium drinker

I assassin down the avenue

I’m hiding out in the big city blinking

What was I thinking when I let go of you?

The song concludes by boiling itself into a mild frenzy of towering bass growls and chaotic distortion, before being slapped awake by the clipped, sprightly rhythms of ‘Kamera’; the sunny melodies of which chafe itchily against Tweedy’s dark-eyed soliloquy. It 1 Jeff Tweedysays a lot that such a strange coupling works seamlessly, establishing a woozy pace which the album comfortably runs with for 52 minutes. Bridging the songs are moments of sonic dissonance, haunting in a similar way to the chilling outbursts in Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

Even for all its jagged edges, there are no moments where the album goes so far as to repel its listeners. Its more instantaneous cuts (‘Pot Kettle Black’, ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’) are bright and invigorating from the offset, but there are also hard-won moments of beauty which eventually arise from the murk clouding both ‘Radio Cure’ and ‘Ashes of American Flags’. All eleven pieces are fantastic pop songs which only strengthen upon repeat listens, striking just the right balance between intrigue and emotional heft, and the latter is a particularly powerful driving force here. The final confession of Tweedy himself at the album’s conclusion says it all:

I’ve got reservations

About so many things

But not about you.

And without oversimplifying it, I think that’s what Yankee Hotel Foxtrot most means to me. At its core, beneath (and constantly informing) its comments on alcoholism, modern dislocation, and the legacies we leave behind (in sound form, if the shortwave extracts are anything to go by), it’s about the basic need to connect; the desire to feel whole. I taught myself ‘Poor Places’ and ‘Reservations’ on guitar over the Christmas season in 2013 because they seemed to encapsulate how much I missed a particular person.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a profoundly affecting album, but far from a downer. It’s addictively catchy, beautifully recorded, and every corner exudes personality and mystery in equal measure. For me, over the course of about four months, the enjoyment which turned to fascination eventually became outright adulation. There’s seemingly enough to be unpicked from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to last years, and that goes musically, lyrically, and mythically. Heck, I’ll never get my head around it, but the seeds of the ideas it’s planted in my head are enough to ensure that I’ll continue to adore it anyway.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
1        I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
2        Kamera
3        Radio Cure
4        War on War
5        Jesus, Etc.
6        Ashes of American Flags
7        Heavy Metal Drummer
8        I’m the Man Who Loves You
9        Pot Kettle Black
10      Poor Places
11      Reservations
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Posted on January 11, 2014, in 25 Masterworks, The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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