With R.E.M. having disbanded last year, it would appear that Wilco now stands pretty well unchallenged as the greatest American rock band. Since rising from the ashes of seminal post-punk country/folk/rock pioneers Uncle Tupelo in 1994, this Chicago-based band has released a series of albums that continues, with each successive drop, to challenge, confound, frustrate, mystify and amuse its fans.
In short, Wilco — whose parts include founding members Jeff Tweedy (singer/songwriter) and John Stirratt (bass), as well as guitarist Nels Cline, drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalists Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone — is to American pop what film noir was to the founder of French New Wave: a reason to rethink everything you thought you were doing.
And like R.E.M., Wilco won’t sit still. The band is constantly fluxing and evolving, recreating and broadening its own artistic parameters only to bust them down at every new turn. Former R.E.M. guitarist Scott McCaughey, who collaborated with Wilco on the Minus 5 album Down with Wilco, says the band appears capable of anything at any time. “Like there is no limit to their greatness,” McCaughey told me last week. “The band gets better every year. They seem to have struck the perfect balance between visionary leader and democratic contributors, so that each member adds such an important element to the realization of the songs, in the studio and on stage.”
The visionary leader of whom McCaughey speaks is Tweedy, whose songwriting has ascended to that rarified level of “scary good,” permanently occupied by legends with names like Wilson, Dylan, Leiber, Lennon and Berlin. On Wilco’s brand-new album, The Whole Love, Tweedy and company have hit some kind of peak, stitching together a flawlessly integrated cycle of songs that is even more daring and refined and melodically smart than the band’s Grammy Award-winning Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It is also the first record released on Wilco’s own label, dBpm Records.
As McCaughey puts it: “Jeff can push outward with his songwriting, getting extremely esoteric and innovative, but he can pull inward at any time and deliver statements of simple and direct beauty.”
Along with Tweedy, the only Tupelo alum still in Wilco is Stirratt, who, with his anchoring bass lines and avian vocal harmonies, seems to play the steady Starbuck to Tweedy’s mad Ahab. “Jeff leaves a lot of things open-ended,” Stirratt says admiringly of Tweedy’s songwriting. “Jeff, he’s tough. He seems really to like being able to bring it.”
Stirratt says he thinks The Whole Love represents a culmination for the band, as though this might be the album Wilco was striving to make from the get-go. “It’s the most successful recording that we’ve done,” he tells me. “We just kind of approached it the right way this time by giving ourselves a lot of time. I do think everyone’s personality came out on this record in a great way. I think this record has really been the first to sort of hint at what really could happen.”
Because the band recorded the new album without a tour hanging immediately over its head, Stirratt says there was a more relaxed attitude in the studio, more time to explore the hidden beauty and power of each song. This extra stretch of playing together and collaborating, he adds, has made Wilco a more cohesive and focused, and just plain better, live band. “We can play together really well as an ensemble,” Stirratt says. “Things just really fell together in a great way.”
And bring it Wilco will, with a tour stop in Eugene on what will be their first West Coast jaunt in several years. Stirratt says the band rarely gets out this way and is excited to play for fans that might not have seen Wilco live in close to a decade. “We kind of just get back on the horse,” he replies when I ask how it is Wilco maintains its typically furious pace of touring and recording. “It’s a tough way to make a living,” Stirratt continues, and then he laughs. “But it’s still rock and roll.”
Wilco plays 8 pm Friday, Feb. 3, at Hult Center; to request or dedicate a song, visit the band’s website at wilcoworld.net; $40-$45.