Wilco have always thrived in misery. In the 22 years of their existence, they’ve transitioned from fuzzy garage rock with a hint of country to expansive jams and experimenting with alternative. But in both of those sounds, Jeff Tweedy and co. always seem to be struggling with something. Maybe it’s the fear of new challenges in life (Being There), maybe it’s isolation (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), maybe it’s self-discovery in an unusual time (Wilco), but there’s always a sense of unease and cynicism behind those guitars. So after the fuzzed-out craziness of their last album (Star Wars), Wilco have decided it’s opposite day and have decided to strip down their sound to the folk rock of old and acting their age. Should they have kept trying to push their sound and build the legacy that is Wilco? Ehhh, Wilco Schmilco, just let them play.
And play they do on their tenth studio album, Schmilco. Produced by Tweedy and Tom Schick and made in the band’s own Chicago, Schmilco is much more personal and reflective than previous work. The lyrics and music is the band looking backwards, a stripped down sound for simpler times. Most of the music is driven by acoustic guitars, hints of electric guitar, and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen being the backbone to almost the entire album. Opener “Normal American Kids” are slight strums of an acoustic guitar with almost a ghostly keyboard roll echoing in the background. “Cry All Day” is propelled by rolling taps of drums by drummer Glenn Kotche as the rest of the band cruises along. “Happiness” sounds like something off of Beck’s Sea Change, a slow-burning acoustic ballad with no orchestral arrangements. At times, Schmilco may feel like the follow-up to Jeff and son Spencer’s album (Spencer is even credited for additional drum work), but the bandmates are there if you listen very closely. You can hear the electric guitar silliness in the background of tracks like “Nope,” “If I Ever Was a Child,” and “Shrug and Destroy.” There’s even a few off-beat moments like “Common Sense” and “Locator,” where the band play around with a winding guitar riff. But the primary feel of Schmilco is a band getting back to its roots, not necessarily going backwards but just finding the right way to communicate where they are now.
As much as the band members make their own stamp on Wilco, what Wilco has to say is usually what Jeff Tweedy has to say. Schmilco is Tweedy looking back on all the drawbacks of his personality. He was a lonely kid, but could never make neighborhood friends because he always hated “Normal American Kids.” His mom always told him he’s great, but he feels bad he’ll never live up to her image (“Happiness”). He’s so bummed out on his failures that he’s going to “Cry All Day.” Tweedy sings about how he’ll never escape his own success on “Nope” (“Fame has legs, blazing chrome / Amputate but it’s never gone”) and lifting the burden of caring about things on “Shrug and Destroy” (“Sometimes I wish to set free / The things that still matter to me”). Schmilco may have the saddest stories Wilco have ever told for such a relaxed musical experience. They sound like the bar band who are having the same mid-life crises as all the other middle-aged men getting drunk after work. But Tweedy and the boys have a great closing time song in the album closer “Just Say Goodbye,” where Tweedy learns to let go of everything. “My my in my opinion / I try, I huff and I puff / Why am I in my skin again,” he says as he quietly fades out.
Wilco have always seemed to find beauty in doubt and confliction, rearranging manic guitars and somber lyrics into something incredibly moving. Schmilco is no bold musical statement, but it is a shockingly bare and open lyrical look into middle-aged regret and trying to move on to the next phase of life. This and Star Wars feel very therapeutic for Wilco, a disruption of expectations followed by quiet acceptance the only way Wilco can.