While working out yesterday, I punched up Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" on the i-pod and the noisy melodies and the tight thematic focus of the lyrics (anxiety, the thin line between loneliness and human connectedness) reminded me why the album is one of my favorites.
I bought YHF in Tucson the day after I defended my dissertation. NPR and just about every website I read had run stories about the band's label dumping Wilco because of YHF's alleged lack of commercial viability. The band streamed the record online, got a boatload of hits, and an indie label released the record in Spring 02. I had listened to bits of the YHF stream, and I liked the band's "Mermaid Avenue" on which they wrote music to accompany heretofore unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics. Plus, buying the record felt like a nice thumb of the nose at the evil empire, i.e. the corporat label that couldn't recognize greatness.
Listening yesterday, I remembered how the lyrics--written *before* the terrorist attacks--create a kind of 9/11 narrative. Early songs, slow and melodic, seem to capture, eerily, the horror of the morning. In "Kamera," the surreal line "phone my family/tell them I'm lost on the sidewalk." In "Jesus, Etc.," the melancholy "tall buildings shake/voices escape/singing sad sad songs." In the middle of the record, a song like "Ashes of American Flags" is full of ambivalence--patriotism and dissent jumbled together. The pace picks up on the second half of the record. The Beatlesque "I'm the Man Who Loves You." The single "Heavy Metal Drummer." Snappier, upbeat tunes, with lots of nostalgia ("I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands"). And the record ends with what can be read as poignant resistance to continued flexing of western might; I always saw the self-explanatory "Pot Kettle Black" as a response to the hypocrisy coming out of the mouths of U.S. leaders (not unlike "War on War," from the first half of the record).
Before the band's label dumbed Wilco, know what the record's original release date was? (Cue creepy orchestral music worthy of a Nostradamus documentary...) Yep, September 11.
YHF gets a bad rap. Dad rock. NPR rock. Suburb rock. You know, the branch of indie that's yuppie friendly. (Favorite moment in the new movie "Pineapple Express"...the insecure , slacker, Seth Rogen character tells his girlfriend who's going to be going to college soon "You're going to start listening to Godspeed You Black Emperor and The Shins" [and dump me is the implicit rest of the sentence]) But forget that noise. This is a record that weaves together old-fashioned radio rock, artsy German noiserock, and hints of the alt-country genre that Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy practically invented. Brilliant stuff.