Tue. May 8
Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot at Ten
Ten years ago, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out, an album that The Atlantic‘s Spencer Kornhaber is calling “the best rock record of the new millennium” in this piece, which burns a little too hotly in its adoration of the alternative-rock band. No doubt about it, the album was a milestone for Wilco, which formed in 1994 from the remaining members of the band Uncle Tupelo. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the band’s bestselling album to date, was not only a commercial success, reaching thirteen on the Billboard top 200 chart, but the critics loved it. Rolling Stone, for instance, ranked it number three on its list of top albums for the 2000s–high praise for a record that was initially rejected by Wilco’s original recording label, Reprise Records.
I’ve always taken my love with Wilco with a grain of salt–there’s definitely a whole lot of pretension running through the band’s schtick–but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t love them back then or that I don’t now. I remember when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out and the powerful affect that its lazy folk-rock style had on me as a fourteen year old listening to its songs on repeat over and over again or, years later, seeing the band perform “Heavy Metal Drummer” in a Vermont field on a summer evening. It was perfect.
Only recently has Wilco ceased to be my go-to listen, but when I think of some of the most memorable experiences of my teen years, Wilco’s on in the background. Kornhaber was also in high school when the album came out, and since we’re both still thinking and writing about–and listening to–its songs ten years later, there was obviously something special about them that really resonated with us and our generation of music listeners.
The lyrics were often (pretty much always) meaningless. But there was this mood and feeling that ran through the album, through lead man Jeff Tweedy’s thin voice, that really stuck on you. It was this painful and anxious unease in trying to make sense of the world around you, particularly someone you love, and of trying to have them make sense of you: “It’s really a soundtrack for the ways in which people ask to be misunderstood,” says Kornhaber. “Misunderstood” about what? Their suffering, of course:
We want a good life with a nose for things
the fresh wind and bright sky to endure my suffering
I’m a hole without a key if I break my tongue
Oh, speaking of tomorrow, how will it ever come?
In other words, the album was pure high school. Pure adolescent emoting. On the band’s earlier album Being There (1996), Tweedy actually complains “I’m so misunderstood” in a song that’s all about angst and immaturity:
There’s something there that you can’t find
Honest when you’re tellin’ a lie
You hurt her but you don’t know why
You love her but you don’t know why
Short on long term goals
There’s a party there that we ought to go to
Do you still love rock and roll?
Do you still love rock and roll?
It’s only a quarter to three
Reflected off the LCD
You’re looking at a picture of me
You’re staring at a picture of me
Take the guitar player for a ride
He ain’t never been satisfied
He thinks he owes some kind of debt
Be years before he gets over it . . .
You know you’re just a mama’s boy
So misunderstood . . .
I’d like to thank you all for nothin’
You get the picture.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which came out six years after Being There and is far more downbeat, is, as Kornhaber points out, also about being misunderstood–but in a more sophisticated way. I suppose that’s what eight years of maturity gets you.
That, and some serious affectation. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s first track, “I am Trying to Break Your Heart,” opens with these lyrics:
I am an American aquarium drinker
I assassin down the avenue
I’m hiding out in the big city blinking
What was I thinking when I let go of you?
Let’s forget about the tongue-tied lightning
Let’s undress just like cross-eyed strangers
This is not a joke, so please stop smiling
What was I thinking when I said it didn’t hurt?
The line “This is not a joke, so please stop smiling” is funny: Tweedy must have been anticipating the reaction of his fans listening to these indecipherable words.
Kornhaber calls Wilco’s lyrics poetry, and though I wouldn’t go that far, I do think they are undoubtedly visceral, emotional, and evocative. And for a teenager, the more of those things, the better. With the exception of the upbeat songs “I’m the Man Who Loves You” and “Heavy Metal Drummer,” which captures the innocence and romance of summer love, the album’s music is haunting; its lyrics are depressing; and Tweedy sings them with a boyish longing and quiver in his voice. The songs are about loss, the uncertainties of love, and the pain of vulnerability–from “Poor Places”:
My jaw’s broken been broken
My heart is wrapped in ice
My fangs have been pulled
And I really want to see you tonight
In the song “Jesus Etc,” Tweedy spins things around. His “bitter melodies” are turning his lover’s “orbit around.” Just like in the song “Misunderstood,” we get the message that her world revolves (should revolve?) around him:
You can rely on me honey
You can come by any time you want
I’ll be around
You were right about the stars
Each one is a setting sun
Tall buildings shake
Voices escape singing sad sad songs
tuned to chords
Strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around
(I’ve always loved the lines “You were right about the stars / Each one is a setting sun.”)
The seven-minute song “Reservations” ends the album humbly. The themes of being misunderstood and distant are still there, and so is Tweedy’s admission that he’s a less than perfect guy:
How can I convince you it’s me I don’t like
And not be so indifferent to the look in your eyes
When I’ve always been distant
And I’ve always told lies for love
I’m bound by these choices so hard to make
I’m bound by the feeling so easy to fake
None of this is real enough to take me from you
Oh I’ve got reservations
About so many things
But not about you
Tweedy is desperately trying to communicate how he feels, but he can’t get his message across. He admits in the song, “I know this isn’t what you were wanting me to say” and then asks the question that really lies at the heart of the whole album–”How can I get closer and be further away?”
We’ve all been there, especially in our teenage years as we’re learning to express complicated emotions that we’re experiencing for the first time. We all feel misunderstood and, as teens, we loved indulging that feeling, that suffering. But as adults–Tweedy was in his mid-thirties when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out–we should probably get over it.