Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a complex but beautiful beast.
It’s sometimes referred to as their experimental album due to the extensive layering of sounds and textures. Others called it their 9/11 album for chilling tracks like ‘Ashes of American Flags’ and lyrical references to tall buildings shaking and voices escaping on ‘Jesus Etc’, which seemed to foreshadow those catastrophic events of 2001.
Had their record label not dropped them on the grounds of what was deemed an unmarketable album, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot may well have been released on September 11. Yet, somehow, Wilco turned Reprise’s rejection into an album that also represented artistic integrity standing up to music corporatism, and winning.
To be sure there are plenty more side stories and subplots – such as the ousting of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and drummer Ken Coomer – which have fed into the myth of this record. But these things don’t diminish the fact that at its core, Wilco’s fourth album shimmers with songs that haunt, intrigue and sparkle.
In his book Learning How to Die, Greg Kot talks about how, in the years leading up to the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy would obsessively listen to a four-cd box set called The Conet Project. On it, recordings of shortwave radio transmissions – sometimes human voices sometimes not – recited suspected coded messages, presumably for espionage purposes, via seemingly random words and numbers.
How these short-wave messages inspired Tweedy and the mood of this album is best heard in ‘Poor Places’ where piano, drums and Tweedy’s observant voice give way to a soundscape of escalating radio static and guitar distortion. A lone, persistent female operator recites ‘Yankee…Hotel…Foxtrot’. As the crescendo builds, her voice, although a fixed recording, seems to take on greater emotional distress. It feels like a moment of transcendence.
“At the end of the day, when Wilco is collaborating to make a piece of music work, I have a deep sensitivity to the fact that I believe the music is doing more of the emotional heavy lifting, and if I can get the lyrics to work and still stay out of the way of how much work the music is doing,” Jeff Tweedy told Studio Q TV in 2011.
“I do think about it more after the fact. I don’t really finish many lyrics until there is a really established environment.”
He may be celebrated for the poetry of his lyrics, but Tweedy also has a strong appreciation of the context and how broader physical settings interact with the listener’s enjoyment of a song.
“Country songs on jukeboxes in bars always sounded better to me than playing country records at home,” he told Rolling Stone in 2010. “Not that I heard a lot of country songs on jukeboxes. But where I grew up (Belleville, Illnois), you were more likely to than not.”
‘Oh, distance has no way of making love understandable, oh, distance has the way of making love understandable.’
‘Radio Cure’ is set to sombre drums and acoustic guitar. Static and sputtering, swirling noises are disruptive and distancing, but also familiar and, in some ways, therapeutic. It’s a characteristic of many of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s songs.
As elements of a long form listening experience, they seem to entice us to examine and explore how space, time and physical separation can impact on the quality of our intimate relationships (‘I’m The Man Who Loves You’, ‘Reservations’) and our sense of identity (‘Kamera’, ‘War On War’ and ‘Ashes of American Flags’).
They seem to urge us to cut through all the noise of life and the excuses we make for ourselves, and assert a willingness to communicate in more open ways. Because time and distance, in many cases, do yield better understanding and perspective.
One of the album’s most loved tracks ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ illustrates it perfectly.
“I worry that people look at that song as too sentimental, very nostalgic,” Tweedy told Rolling Stone. “But I guess that's what it is. The assumption I've heard a lot of people make is that I was the one playing Kiss covers – I wasn't. I'm talking about that band that I can't find anymore, that I wish I could, because now I would feel less superior to them, and be able to enjoy them more.
“Being in Uncle Tupelo, being into punk rock and indie records, I'd feel so superior. It took me a long time to realise how these other bands were just having a fucking blast. How right they were.
“The relationship between that performer and that audience, the connection, the circuit of it, was more beautiful than most concerts I see now… where people are achieving an intellectual understanding of it. But the circuit isn't there, because everybody is afraid to dance.
“That's a tough thing for people to accept, especially musicians. It could be true that the listener's talent level is as important as theirs. I think a person who can jump around on the dancefloor and have a kick-ass time is a talented listener. They're getting something very valuable out of the exchange.”