Halfway through Wilco’s eighth studio album, Jeff Tweedy proclaims, “I would love to be the one to open up your mind.” The lyric is found at the heart of “Open Mind”, by far the most straight-forward song on The Whole Love and a track that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Wilco/Billy Bragg Mermaid Avenue collaborations celebrating the works of Woody Guthrie. It’s the kind of track that made Wilco the darlings of the alt-country movement in the 90’s, and it’s the kind of song that hasn’t appeared on a Wilco album since 1996’s Being There double album.
Since that time, Tweedy and Wilco have literally been opening up our minds to the definition of pop/rock music, expanding the boundaries of a pop song like nobody else has since The Beatles release of Revolver in 1966.
The Whole Love could have easily been called The Whole Wilco as the album is a blend of all previous Wilco incarnations and moves seamlessly between musical genres. It’s like having your iPod pointing at the Wilco catalogue and pressing shuffle.
The sing-along power-pop of the band’s debut, A.M., is well represented by “Dawned On Me” while the synth-driven wall-of-sound production of Summer Teeth is all over tracks like “Born Alone” and “I Might”.
“Sunloathe”, “Black Moon” and “Rising Red Lung” are lush soundscapes reminiscent of the band’s work on Sky Blue Sky while “Capital City” and “Standing O” are remnants of the light-hearted Wilco featured on the band’s previous effort, “Wilco (The Album)”.
The white-soul falsetto of “Theologians” from A Ghost Is Born arrives in the form of the album’s title track and has Tweedy comfortable enough with the listener to finally reveal his “Whole Love.”
But it’s the bookend tracks of The Whole Love that truly demonstrate the diversity of Wilco and how far the band has come in 16 years.
The album opens with “Art Of Almost”, Wilco’s boldest studio experiment to date. The track mixes synthesisers, looped guitar noise and rhythmic changes set to the drone of a pounding bass line that makes you feel uncomfortable at best. Wilco has used this technique before on tracks like “Less Than You Think”, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Bull Black Nova”, but never to kick-off a record.
There is no doubt that this is a band in full control of who they are and how they want to present themselves. I can’t imagine too many record company executives listening to “Art of Almost” and thinking, ‘yeah, let’s open the record with that!” But Wilco, masters of their own domain since establishing their own label (dBpm), challenge their audience and set new boundaries for pop music right out of the gate.
The album closes with “One Sunday Morning (Song For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”. The track features some of Tweedy’s darkest lyrics delivered over ten, four-line versus and set against a beautiful backdrop of finger picking and country music. If you listen to the album on repeat and hear this track followed by “Art Of Almost” not only does it seem unlikely that this is the same band or the same album, it sounds like music from two different planets altogether.
This juxtaposition is what makes The Whole Love the closest thing to a live Wilco experience. On any given night the band leaps between musical styles without skipping a beat or seaming awkward in any way. Sure, there’s still the odd guy at a Wilco show shouting out the names of old A.M. tracks, but Wilco continues to build a fan base with open minds and open ears, ready to hear what they’ll do next.