Last night while I was making my pretentious internet reading rounds, Wilco's "Ashes of American Flags" came up on iTunes. After about 3 seconds or so, I was stopped mid-sentence on Slate, paralyzed by a piercing chill. It's been a while since I've had a musical chill that strong, probably the last one being the first time I heard "You Stepped out of Dream" as recorded by the vocalist Jeanne Lee and the pianist Ran Blake back in July.
I was surprised my reaction to the song was so strong, considering I had heard it before. Usually for me to have that super-crazy-oh-my-God moment I have to be hearing a piece of music for the first time (like my near out-of-body experience lying on the floor of a common room in Forbes listening to Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, or the time I first heard Fred Hersch's "Leaves of Grass" on a plane to Florida). So why did I respond so strongly to "Ashes of American Flags" that I stopped everything else and just stared into space, letting the music wash over me?
Certainly the opening sounds have a lot to do with it. The warbling feedback and windblown bells seem to make time stand still, suspending the world coming into your ears. Then comes that distortion-laden guitar lead that carves a red streak through a purple sky. By the time Jeff Tweedy finishes up the first verse, filled with these perfect little images of diet coke and atms, I'm gone, trapped in the world the song has created. "All my lies are always wishes/I know I would die if I could come back new."
So needless to say I wore my Wilco t-shirt today. And realized something peculiar. I had never listened to Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" all the way through.
I did just that tonight, and on the way was struck by how it's not a true rock/pop album by any stretch of the imagination. The song forms are really pretty simple, and "Radio Cure" that actually changes keys somewhere in the middle. There are backbeats, fuzzy electric guitars, wurlitzer piano. But just the way it's all put together, the way the sounds line up and mingle, is about as un-pop as you can get.
It starts with the drums. On Wilco's earlier efforts, like "Being There" and "Summerteenth," there are plenty of weird studio tricks and walls of guitar noise, but one thing that is never messed with is the drum sound and time-feel. Ken Coomer's drums sound like big rock drums and he plays like he wants you to move your butt. Or at least bob your head. But on "Yankee," new drummer Glenn Kotche adds a slew of small percussion sounds to the mix, like the soothing ring of crotales and trashy cymbals. Even the drums themselves sound like they badly miked, sounding oddly thin. And the whole thing just doesn't really groove in the way a rock album should, even the nostalgic and playful "Heavy Metal Drummer." It's not that Kotche doesn't have good groove (just check out the ferocious "Monkey Chant" from his solo percussion album), it's just that, well, the album wouldn't work as well as it does if you wanted to tap your foot to "Jesus, Etc."
"Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" feels more like an art (read, classical) musician's take on what a pop album should be. All of the aspects of a good rock album, the snarling guitars, the thumping bass, the insistent drums, the witty couplets, are passed through a thick prism on "Yankee." The familiar is transformed into something startling. You listen and think, "Everything that's supposed to be there is there, so why does it feel so uncomfortable?" Instead of pleasing the listener with expectations fulfilled, "Yankee" challenges all those who come in contact with it, much like a good piece of avant-garde concert music, be it the winding atonal melodies of Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" or the infinitely dense chords of Gyorgi Ligeti's "Atmospheres." But it is this challenge makes the music so powerful, forcing the listener to comfort the vast unknown, the pleasurable terror of the sublime.
So I can definitely see why Reprise Records wanted Wilco do make the album again. All of the songs are basically witty folk pop tunes that got radically fucked up in the studio. The execs weren't ready to peddle art music, sitting music, contemplating music. And so it also makes total sense how Wilco ended up on Nonesuch, a primarily art music label whose artists include stalwarts of progressive American art music, like Steve Reich, John Adams, Bill Frisell, and the Kronos Quartet.
In the end, no matter how powerful a listening experience "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is, it falls victim to the same issues that plague the interaction of almost all art music with its listeners: it is music whose power can only be truly grasped in a state of quiet, of darkness, alone-ness, whether through a pair of headphones or in a dimmed concert hall. I get ecstatic chills listening to "Ashes of American Flags" alone in my room, but I'll scream out the chorus to "Being There's" "Monday" at a party with my friends.
But back to "Ashes." I still haven't quite figured out why I had this reaction to the song now, rather than when I first heard it. My one guess is that it has at least a little to do with the fact I'm in London and what's happening back home. Come to think of it, my pretentious nightly reading may have a bit to do with it then because at the time "Ashes" came on last night, I was reading a piece about Christine O'Donnell. With Tea Party hysteria in full swing, a government paralyzed by polls (and some pure godawful stupidity, ie Jim DeMint), and an election about a month away, it's very hard for me to be watching this all from half a world away. Though "Ashes" doesn't have an explicit political statement, it does speak to the heart of how I feel about the political situation right now: vapid, full of desire for change, just hoping someone has the balls to proverbially burn the American flag - do something that's deeply controversial and unpopular, but something that needs to be done.