Cruel Country can occasionally lapse into tedious shapelessness, but it’s low-key, easygoing charms feel largely organic and earned.
For a while, it seemed like nothing ever came easy for Wilco. Early classics like Being There and Summerteeth bore the marks of personal and professional strife, from inter-band turmoil to lyrics gesturing toward substance abuse. The band’s masterpiece, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, had an incubation so fraught it warranted its own documentary feature. But somewhere along the way, Jeff Tweedy and co. made the transition from tortured artists to easygoing journeymen. They’re locked into their stablest and longest-running lineup ever, and convene every few years at Tweedy’s Loft studio to produce records increasingly marked by their warmth, casualness, and good humor. Cruel Country sounds almost like it could be the capstone of their journeyman era: Though its lyrics reflect a dispeptic national mood, the music itself feels easeful, unhurried, and content; for 21 songs and nearly 80 minutes, the album invites us to bask in the band’s unforced chemistry, and to take pleasure in their leisurely songcraft. Even the record’s attempts to reconcile with Wilco’s contested country-roots bona fides, long a subject of discomfort for Tweedy, suggests a newfound sanguinity. Chalk it up to age and experience; or, a long-deserved sabbath from constant toil.
Of course, that sanguinity comes with some tradeoffs. Those earlier Wilco albums roiled with dramatic tension, giving the music a crisp, kinetic snap; Summerteeth was spring-loaded with experimental pop pleasures, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot wore its exploratory zeal in an array of textures and aural delights. There’s not a lot of snap to Cruel Country, an album that’s awash in pedal steel ambiance and rarely moves beyond a strolling tempo. There are no Nels Cline freakouts here, no krautrock excursions, no warped pop masterpieces in the vein of “Shot in the Arm” or “Heavy Metal Drummer.” The album does work up some steam for the brisk Bakersfield shuffle in “Falling Apart (Right Now),” while “A Lifetime to Find” offers a spritely take on honky tonk. But mostly, this is an album that unspools its pleasures patiently and quietly: Its character is summed up by “Ambulance,” a campfire ballad that’s all rustling guitar strings and late-night crooning, or else by the clip-clop percussion in the title track.
An album this long and this even-keel can occasionally lapse into tediousness; and cliche though it may be to complain about a double album’s generous length, there’s a shapelessness here that begs for a more ruthless editor. It’s hard not to wonder if that earlier version of Wilco, the one that had to fight and scrape for every take, would have ever made an album so lax, so low-key. But it’s equally true that the earlier version of Wilco couldn’t have made an album where they sounded quite so comfortable in their skin, so happy to lean into their age, experience, and burnished songcraft. And there is so much here that speaks to their refinement as a band, their intuitive interplay and chemistry. Their c&w signifiers never scan as inauthentic, any more than their more exploratory songs (like the weird two-part suite “Bird Without a Tail/Base of My Skull”) feel forced or out of place. And as a lyricist, Tweedy has found a real sweet spot between clarity and insinuation: Here he offers a state-of-the-union that’s borne of compassion and concern, surveying America’s dysfunction not as a polemicist, but as a sad citizen who’s not quite ready to give up hope. His reflections warrant time and attention, and with Cruel Country, Wilco has provided space for exactly that.
Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2022 | Part 4.