Though they evolved from the ashes of a country band, Uncle Tupelo, Wilco have always had a somewhat stilted relationship with country music. Though their sound has shifted constantly from one album to the next, from straightforward rock to long-form experimental pieces, it’s always been an ingredient, but one they never allowed to become the focus. Doing so “helped us grow and keep our minds open,” head honcho Jeff Tweedy said on the announcement of their new album, ‘Cruel Country’.
As the name implies, the band’s 12th record sees Wilco do away with that reluctance and lean into country music wholeheartedly, albeit on their own terms. For the most part the tried-and-tested country music tropes are employed subtly – on ‘Mystery Binds’, for instance, the regulation slide guitar is flip-reversed into a kind of gentle psychedelia.
The band are clearly taking care to avoid pastiche. When they do lean more heavily on tropes, they approach them from unusual angles – album standout ‘The Empty Condor’ starts with a gritty cowboy riff that’s poised to soar straight into the obvious cod-Morricone crescendo, but Wilco restrain themselves from that cliché, instead exploring a gloomy and melancholic sweep. The mere title of the ‘Country Song Upside Down’ lays it out plainly.
Freed from resisting their country roots, and having found a way to explore them without succumbing to cliché, ‘Cruel Country’ finds Wilco enjoying the comforts of knowing exactly what to do. It’s no surprise that it stretches out languorously over 21 songs, recorded in stripped-back, mostly live sessions. For the most part sitting in a slick and sweet mid-tempo, it’s similarly comfortable to listen to.
Beneath the record’s pretty surface, however, lies plenty of depth. That Wilco have decided to lean into the most American of musical styles at this particular point in time is no coincidence; the title ‘Cruel Country’ refers to both Wilco’s take on the musical genre and America itself as it devolves further and further into unrest – to the band’s evident dismay.
From the title track, early on the record, where Tweedy sings earnestly of conflicted patriotism to a classic country clip-clop rhythm, to constant images of migration (“Dangerous dreams have been protected, streaming over the border” on opener ‘I Am My Mother’) and division (“We’d rather kill than compromise” on ‘Hints) what emerges is a fractured portrait of a complicated nation, one that offers no easy resolutions but remains, like America, endlessly compelling. If the best country music has always been about storytelling, then on ‘Cruel Country’ Wilco are delivering it in its purest form.
Release date: May 27
Record Label: dBPM Records