The Whole Love is not the best record that Wilco have put out. However, for almost any other band, this late career collection would be a great achievement – the kind of singular sound that signals a newfound maturity and vision. With past albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (a pitchfork 10.0), it’s hard to accept anything short of genius from this hardworking band.
When I saw Wilco on their tour to support Wilco (The Album), I recall that the band was still getting used to its new incarnation as a six-piece. When they played some of the sparser songs from older records like Being There and Summerteeth, their attempts at finding things for all the members to do sometimes resulted in clunky arrangements and just too much going on. Not that it wasn’t an impressive concert. New songs like Impossible Germany, with a five or six-minute guitar freak-out interlude by the sorcerer Nels Cline stuck in the middle, and Bull Black Nova as well as the title track really shone.
Some have complained that Wilco are sounding too comfortable, that they’ve lost some of their edge. I disagree, I think on The Whole Love the band has really locked into its six-piece sound, and are producing some of the best pop songs of their career. The record on the whole does feel less groundbreaking than some of their earlier work, but this is partly due to the brood of imitators that now compete with Wilco for our alt-country attention. The standout tracks are many: Art of Almost, I Might, Born Alone, and this one Dawned On Me.
This is a classic Wilco song, a twisted pop song that explores darker themes with a sunny melody. “I’m taken by the sound of my own voice/Voices in my Head” Jeff Tweedy croons in the first verse. Later, he admits that “I regret letting you go/ Sometimes I can’t believe how dark it can be.” This tension between a dark topic and traditional pop song structure is classic Wilco. They let this tension inform the music as well – the song begins with the quiet whine of guitar feedback, and the organ plays a little dark-circus riff intermittently. This tension is most effectively encapsulated two minutes into the song when a wild, overdriven guitar solo by Cline is interrupted and cut off by Tweedy whistling the verse melody. This little musical joke reenforces the feeling that the protagonist of the song is making a conscious effort to keep the crazy inside, to keep the song a sunny pop number, but he’s failing. It’s beginning to fall apart at the seams.
Bonus: For the video, Wilco partnered with king features to produce the first hand-drawn Popeye cartoon in 30 years! With Wilco as characters! It’s a real gem.