The Bush-era fatalism that haunts Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — an early- aughts alt-country masterwork forever tethered to the grievous anger of the weeks following 9/11, when the record leaked online and listeners were spooked by lyrics that evoked buildings shaking and flags burning — doesn’t feel as far removed from the present as it should. It looked like a man bearing witness to the birth pangs of a new reality we’re still acclimating to, where dying is as easy as heading out to work or school or church or the grocery store, and you simply never know what horrors the next day holds. “Speaking of tomorrow,” frontman Jeff Tweedy exhales in the autumnal Foxtrot highlight “Ashes of American Flags,” “how will it ever come?” In 2002, it felt like a moment of pure depressive melodrama, like weathering a cartoonish, self-aware bummer.
This year, the question still stings. At Manhattan’s United Palace Theater in April, Wilco lovingly re-created every part of the beloved release, then came back for a fleeting set of ephemera pertinent to the album — a cover of “Be Not So Fearful” by Bill Fay, the genius British folk singer Tweedy became taken with in the early aughts, and “Pieholden Suite” and “A Magazine Called Sunset,” two originals that heavily featured late, great multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, Tweedy’s foil in the Foxtrot sessions. If it hit hard watching Wilco re-create Foxtrot onstage, revisiting the moment must have been just as daunting for the band itself. Unsurprisingly, returning to the scene of a project whose note-perfect sadness is the product of a writer’s struggles with drugs, depression, labels, and other bandmates is no comforting task, especially for a band that hates repeating itself. What attendees didn’t know at the time is that there was a new album in the can already: the rustic, quiet Cruel Country, another sharp left turn from a group that loves to zig when a zag is expected.
Foxtrot’s immaculate blend of country bona fides, pop smarts, and avant-garde flourishes was an escape from a sound they felt trapped in. Wilco was formed in the aftermath of the dissolution of beloved Illinois alt-country outfit Uncle Tupelo. Frontman Jay Farrar walked, starting his own band, Son Volt; the remaining members regrouped behind Tweedy in his new endeavor. Wilco’s 1995 debut, A.M., was built on the tuneful country-rock of Tupelo’s 1993 swan song, Anodyne, but nothing Tweedy’s new act was selling could match the last album’s comfort in drifting from the bluegrass history lesson “Acuff-Rose” to the tender rocker “The Long Cut.” Middling reviews and modest sales put Wilco in a precarious spot that seemed to fuel the low moods and high-flying explorations of the next album, 1996’s Being There, a devastating double featuring “Misunderstood,” a bombastic ode to feeling like a failure in your 20s, and “Why Would You Want to Live?,” a suicidal ideation dressed up in the ornate psychedelia of the Turtles. The second album won the acclaim that escaped the first; suddenly Wilco was earning breathless reviews and gaining respect in the Americana scene. This made Tweedy uncomfortable, as he would detail in his 2018 memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording With Wilco, Etc.: “I really didn’t want people to think of us with a label attached — roots music or Americana or whatever brand they were peddling that week.” Wilco quickly applied itself to complicating that rep. Summerteeth, released in 1999, mixed rugged power-pop and Van Dyke Parks fan service; Foxtrot doused sunny rockers and moody folk songs in waves of hissing noise. After the more experimental A Ghost Is Born came the jammier Sky Blue Sky. The laconic folk of Schmilco chased the power-pop retrenchment of Star Wars. When Wilco starts to get comfortable, it changes again. While revisiting “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I Am the Man Who Loves You,” creating arrangements that felt mindful of the original recordings, Wilco started writing new songs that rejected the intricate sonic architecture of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Cruel Country sees a band pondering its legacy and coming to terms with the limits of what a song can do.
Returning to its Chicago home recording studio the Loft after the forced separation of the early pandemic, Wilco found itself yearning to record new material as a full band rather than tracking every song part by painstaking part. Tweedy had been writing a lot thanks to a challenge from his glacier-climbing buddies George Saunders and Nick Offerman. Songs were recorded live, taped as quickly, loosely, and freely as they were written. Soon Wilco had another double album on its hands. Being There used the format to push the band in a dozen new directions, but Cruel Country is honoring a different impulse, scaling down and burrowing into itself. The title is kind of a double entendre: This is the most extensive foray into pure country for Wilco since A.M. (which, to be fair, is just as much a descendant of the Stones as it is of the Scorchers), and 2022 is a uniquely disquieting year to be an American. Cruel Country offers pretty chords and pointed questions. Tweedy knows he’s not getting the answers he’s looking for; it’s more that he feels his job as a songwriter is to keep asking questions. In a 2004 Spin interview, the singer said the studio is his bastion of control on a planet that he can’t change: “It’s hellish for me to so badly want order in a world where you can’t have it. My impulse when I write is an almost obsessive-compulsive desire for order.”
If Jeff Tweedy sees recording as an act of control, he sees writing as an act of release, a dalliance with a fleeting idea. In his 2019 book, How to Write One Song, the singer-songwriter explained that writing is a chance “to watch your concept of time evaporate, to live at least once inside a moment when you aren’t ‘trying’ to do anything or be anything anymore.” In Let’s Go, he told us his songs are messages to himself in the future: “If I have some epiphany that I’m sure I’ll eventually forget, I make a mental note to stash the basic premise in a song somewhere so I can have the lesson refreshed from time to time.” Cruel Country feels like a collection of those notes, a man pondering his smallness in the grand scheme of the history of the universe. He’s unsure what his talent is worth, what its value says about the career path he committed his life to. He wants to be good but doesn’t know if it matters. “It’s boring, they don’t tell you that,” closer “The Plains” notes, “‘Wait’ it’s all they ever say / It’s hard to watch nothing change.” “What good am I?,” the unnervingly sweet “All Across the World” asks. “What good can I do / When I can barely stand / Knowing what’s true?” Taking inventory of American disorder in the title track (“I love my country, stupid and cruel / Red, white, and blue”), an evil twin to the ragged optimism of Being There’s “Red-Eyed and Blue,” and in songs like “Hints” (“There is no middle when the other side / Would rather kill than compromise”), Cruel Country absolves itself of responsibility for what it can’t control and pledges to work on all it can fix. “The world is always on the brink,” “Story to Tell” reminds us, “and love is dumber than you think.” The universe, torch song “The Universe” resolves, “For what it’s worth / Is the only place / To be.” Near the end of the album, “Sad Kind of Way” (“The best I can do / Is try to be happy for you / In a sad kind of way”), and “Please Be Wrong” (“Let me be someone good / You deserve / Someone good”) choose perseverance.
Cruel Country is touted as an open-armed embrace of a genre Wilco has at times been reticent to engage or even be seen as directly engaging — and these arrangements feel stripped and ramshackle, like a country band carefully tiptoeing in behind the singer in a devastatingly quiet club performance. But Wilco is a band whose membership includes brilliant experimental artists like drummer Glenn Kotche and guitar god Nels Cline, and a certain restlessness endures even when the group tries to tone it down. “I Am My Mother” kicks things off with a high, reedy vocal performance from Tweedy that signals a new sound the same way that Bob Dylan’s 1969 artistic detour Nashville Skyline embraced a smoother vocal style while it pushed the folkie into country music. “Falling Apart (Right Now)” and “A Lifetime to Find” both nail the pure country assignment, but the French horn part in the folk song “Darkness Is Cheap” sounds more like Asthmatic Kitty Records than Acuff-Rose Music, and the elegant rocker “All Across the World” is more E Street than Earl Scruggs. These are country songs imbued with the lacerating wit of Randy Newman, that observe the balance of the romantic and the cosmic at the core of good John Lennon songs, that tap into the feathery folk-rock of the Byrds and the grisly storytelling of Bob Dylan. This is the student applying all that he learned from his teachers to a complex problem, the matter of how to feel good about being alive in the midst of compounding global catastrophes. But since Cruel Country was made in a burst of activity in the spirit of letting go of Wilco’s thirst for perfectionism, this album sometimes feels more like watching the band as it workshops great demos than it feels like something the guys who made Foxtrot and Being There and 2019’s great Ode to Joy or any earlier incarnation of the group might have spent months tweaking.
Cruel Country’s choice to eschew big-band interplay for sparse and delicate arrangements, coupled with Tweedy’s mix of intimate thoughts and occasionally obtuse storytelling, makes for an album packed with mystery and metaphysics. Songs like “Ambulance, “The Empty Condor,” “Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull,” and “Country Song Upside-down” sit in a long line of jarring Wilco album sidewinders (see “Hell Is Chrome,” “Red-Eyed and Blue,” and “Common Sense”), but only intermittently do the new songs match the back-catalogue highs, and the weirder ones distract from the sense of cosmic purpose emanating from songs where Tweedy is writing poignantly and specifically about the human condition, like “The Universe,” “A Lifetime to Find,” and “Many Worlds.” Cruel Country soars when the band gets busy — see: the instrumental passage in “Bird Without a Tail,” the guitar theatrics in the coda of “Many Worlds,” the soulful groove of “Tonight’s the Day,” or the sinister rock riff in “Mystery Binds” — but the album prefers enveloping its truths in heavy, disarming silence. It’s intriguing as an exploration of Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting process, as a window into one man’s method of weathering our modern madness, and as an exercise in cutting loose in the middle of recording a different and reportedly more laborious Wilco album still yet to be released. Immediacy is the point with Cruel Country, but a bit of polish might have smoothed the rougher edges.