It is hard to describe the way music makes us feel. Once in a while some stray chord change comes along that quite robs us of our ability to communicate, makes us want to close our eyes and melt, rendering us stranded in a state of auditory euphoria. The intensity of this sensory pleasure makes it even harder to determine what makes music objectively good; to say of a sonata, “that is incredible!” rather than “I think that sounds incredible!”
To determine objectivity, one supposedly needs a certain level of detachment; an ability to step back from personal implication and lay claim to an object’s beauty beyond subjective preference or physical desire. So then, does deciding what music is best mean we have to sacrifice that mystical melty feeling? To listen to an album the same way we judge the sturdiness of our furniture?
Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which turned twenty last week, does little to help with solving these questions. It is an album full of paradoxes. For one thing, personal connection is virtually guaranteed if you give it patience, yet it has simultaneously incurred a virtually universal positive consensus.
It is loved by all; hip young gunslingers and old timers, dads and daughters, freaks and geeks alike, you love it yourself. And yet, for someone else it is as human as it is alienating. There is so much bound up in the everyday, like the “fallen leaves filling up shopping bags”, or the “diet Coca-Cola and unlit cigarettes”, on ‘Ashes to American Flags’. Yet everything is left somewhat unanswered. We never quite get a clear-cut picture or a full vision, just a vague sense. It isn’t sonic perfection or literary genius, this album. It is a collage, a pastiche of sorts. In ‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’, Sam Jones’s documentary of the album’s release, David Fricke of Rolling Stone says that “it doesn’t tell me exactly who it’s for, exactly what it’s about…you just have to sit with it, to allow yourself the time to get something out of it.”
Indeed, the first minute of track one goes some way to explaining why Reprise Records refused to release the album. Alarm bells sound and an untuned piano plays some abandoned asylum soundscape. Discordant drums and rumbling bass enter the fray, like an inchoate behemoth rousing itself from its slumber. But eventually, as is so often the case throughout Yankee Hotel, all coalesces; lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s up-all-night voice starts up over the general din: “I am an American Aquarium drinker, I assassin down the avenue.” You picture him blind drunk, stumbling aimlessly around, lost in a big city, searching for someone or something that he will not find.
Following on from 1997’s Summerteeth, an excellent but comparatively square tribute to the compatibility of alternative country and pop-rock, Yankee Hotel sees Wilco unmasked, uninhibited, free to stretch their legs and caper in the playground of sonic possibility. There is abrasion, there is cohesion, there are highs and lows, nostalgia and euphoria, guitar, bass, drums, piano, a sample from the avant-garde Conet Project.
The lyrics are Beatles-esque in their fleet-footed spontaneity. “If I could you know I would / Just hold your hand and you’d understand / I’m the man who loves you,” Tweedy belts on ‘I’m The Man Who Loves You,’ followed by feedback guitar that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Neil Young album. ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’, surely an essential for any summer barbecue, inhabits a sunny space of cheerful nostalgia; “I miss the innocence I’ve known / playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned.” Jesus Etc, the album’s physical and emotional centrepiece, glistens in its own soft tears.
But there is nothing mawkish or gooey in Yankee Hotel. One thing Tweedy describes in his memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), is his rejection of the idea of the tortured artist. An ability to express emotion with accuracy and profundity is important, but great artists are able to produce it in spite of personal trauma, not because of it. And this comes across. Jesus Etc., Radio Cure, the aching Poor Places. All are songs that somehow project a beautiful solemnity without crossing into the dangerous territory of maudlin self-indulgence.
I don’t wish to overegg the pudding, but to me the best albums, like this one, defy taste altogether. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album for anyone, anytime, anywhere. With your dad in the kitchen at two in the morning. On a porch with a cold brewski and a pal one afternoon. Blubbering on your bed after a difficult break up.
Who needs a sturdy table when you’ve got this, turning your orbit around.
Image: Tristan Loper via Wikicommons