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Is Wilco’s The Whole Love Boundary Pushing or Endearing?

In some ways–a lot of ways–rock is the very genre of boundary pushing, so what does it mean when album review after album review of an artist’s work is analyzed and assessed by the degree to which it’s “pushed boundaries”?

Take, for instance, the latest (eighth) Wilco CD, The Whole Love. I love Wilco. I mean, I might get a panic attack just talking about them.

The Whole Love certainly is getting a whole lot of attention, and most of it is pretty positive, some of it ecstatic. But I’ve really been trying to get my mind around the idea of how they’re developing this reputation for being so experimental in the very eyes of rock n’ roll history.

Rolling Stone found a place for The Whole Love in its top 10 albums of 2011, “with the band at its original endearing best.” Randall Roberts, writing for “Pop and Hiss” of the L.A. Times Review, says that all six members of Wilco are still reaching out in new directions. So, which is it?

Greg Kot, writing for the Chicago Tribune, writes, “On most of the songs, Tweedy indulges in lyrics that blur the line between nonsense and poetry, revelation and obfuscation.” A good characterization, I think. Kitty Empire, writing for The Observer, says of the much-discussed first song, “Art of Love” , “It’s a restless seven-minute opener, pregnant with possibility, mustering uneasy beats, strings, and a Krautrock work-out in which gifted guitarist Nels Cline scrawls outside the lines with glee.” What a wonderful sentence! Paul Thompson, writing for Pitchfork, calls Wilco “one of the most forward-thinking American bands of the last decade and change.” But does pushing musical boundaries simply mean that a band continues to “experiment” while maintaining and growing a fan base, as John Dolan for Rolling Stone writes?

Or is it about expectations?

It’s generally accepted that the band’s sixth and seventh projects seemed less spirited in an experimental sense than mid-period efforts such as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, which came out of left compared with their earlier Americana-based efforts. For a long period, Wilco was largely ignored by the mainstream music establishment. Now everyone is writing about their latest like they’re the leaders of rock creativity? What’s the criteria? Extended “wig outs”? Space jams? Innovative marketing approaches? Re-inventing yourself with each album? Can we know it as it’s happening, or is it always something in retrospect?

As far as I understand innovation, the small sub-genre of rock, “post rock” or “space rock,” continues to produce what seems to me as authentic, boundary-expanding music. Bands like Explosions in the Sky, The American Dollar, Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Do Make Say Think, Sigur Ros, and the many bands you might have seen on a given Friday or Saturday night for the past twenty years at The Empty Bottle in Chicago. The music is orchestral, complex, often incorporating a plenitude of instruments not ordinarily associated with rock. Oh, and they rarely sing.

I get why these styles are never going to be popular. They don’t have the melodic hooks, and for as innovative as the sonic textures and dynamics may be, there’s an inherent anonymity when one has no lyrics/singing (although one might say that there are an awful lot of bands who might have strongly considered this approach…How many times have you been hooked momentarily by a few measures or riffs, only to lose interest when the singing began?).

Interestingly enough, Jeff Tweedy’s limited singing range (often described as a “rasp”) has always been a limitation. Let’s face it, some of this comes down to Tweedy’s charismatic personality, and the work he’s done as a producer, founding the band and seeing it through its long-and-winding permutations. For me, one of the best all-time lyrical examples of Tweedy’s gift for pushing the boundaries of “obfuscation” but still suggesting all sorts of possible meanings, is “Company in My Back.”

I fell in love with ‘Foxtrot,’ ‘Ghost,’ and ‘Sky Blue Sky’ immediately. I felt like I’ve had to explore more with the last two (The Album), and now The Whole Love. They’re filled with wonderful detail but are maybe a little harder to hold right at first.

“California Stars” by Woody Guthrie, and recorded on Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 1.

The most trend-setting song from “The Whole Love”

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