Wilco is something of a machine for churning out moderately successful indie rock, and, riding straight on the coattails of last year’s release of Star Wars, it seems like Schmilco is more of the same. It is impressive that Wilco has maintained the not-so-mainstream fringe popularity that many indie bands strive for. Even going all the way back to 1995’s release of A.M., the band has employed its own brand of rock, blending synthetic and acoustic stylings to its own liking. With last Friday’s release of Schmilco, however, Wilco has entirely dropped any synth-esque sounds in favor of an entirely acoustic album. And, thankfully, it works very well.
Diving into a purely acoustic front is not the most revolutionary decision that Wilco has ever made, but it is certainly an effective one. From the very outset of the album, Wilco’s deviation from earlier work is extremely apparent. Schmilco opens with “Normal American Kids,” in which Jeff Tweedy laments that he was “always afraid of those normal American kids” as he grew up in empty summer days. In classic Wilco style, Tweedy tugs at the heartstrings of his listeners, leaving twinges of sorrow throughout his work.
“If Ever I Was A Child” and “Cry All Day” follow much of the same pattern. Interestingly, it is about midway through the album when Wilco breaks away from its typical style—rather than sweet, introspective melodies, Tweedy picks up a sense of brooding in his voice, twisting the notes of “Common Sense” into a more foreboding tone. “Common Sense” is by far the most unique song on Schmilco—though not the best endeavour put forth by Wilco, it is certainly one of the more compelling artistic choices in a while.
Fortunately, Wilco’s songwriting is as enthralling as ever, and the midpoint of Schmilco, “Happiness,” deserves a special spotlight. Tweedy sings the following: “My mother says I’m great / And it always makes me sad / I don’t think she’s being nice / I really think she believes that / So now I bend my days around the people / All the people obey, whoa.” It is Tweedy’s propensity to put himself in a position of “otherness” that perhaps makes him so appealing—whether lamenting his fear of normal American kids, or feeling his detachment from his mother, Tweedy comes across as mysterious (even ethereal at times). Going all the way back to 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco’s songwriting has been its strong suit, and Schmilco very much still follows this pattern.
The album is rounded out by the fittingly named “Just Say Goodbye,” and even though the latter half of Schmilco is not nearly so strong as the former half, the album does feel rewarding to listen to. This is an excellent culmination of all of Wilco’s strongest parts, and for longtime fans, Schmilco will feel like yet another strong work by a band rooted in its own form of expertise. There is even something to be said for the album’s cover art—created by surrealist comic artist Joan Cornella, the art depicts a young child’s father electrocuting himself in order to power a record player. Certainly not the most lighthearted of concepts, but it is executed cheerfully enough that it will garner a laugh from nearly anyone who sees it.
Nothing is perfect of course, but examining the progression of Wilco’s work, one trend becomes quickly apparent: a tendency toward acoustic sounds. This style works well for the band—in the album description, critic Ryan Deming calls Schmilco “joyously negative” (a very accurate description), and the light strumming of a guitar creates the perfect environment for a bit of angst toward the classic American Dream. It does not seem that Wilco has any desire to catapult itself into the public eye, but if it did, its new brand of acoustic melancholy works incredibly well for putting records into the hands of consumers. Schmilco is an interesting milestone for the band in that sense—though there is not a lot in the way of innovation here, there is a huge amount of indie rock mastery, and for a band that has survived as long as Wilco has—well, that’s remarkably okay.
Featured Image By dBpm Records