Chicago’s native sons Wilco have returned after almost three years with a follow-up to their quiet, reflective 2019 album Ode To Joy. Cruel Country is yet another quiet, reflective album; songs that feel whispered by songsmith/singer Jeff Tweedy in hushed, breathy tones as if he’s recording songs next to a room where a small child naps. His delivery never above more than a sleepy shrug. Where Ode To Joy felt like the younger, less tormented brother of Wilco’s 2004 opus A Ghost Is Born, Cruel Country is 21 songs and 75 minutes of front porch twang. Acoustic strummers that look at the twisted and confused world we currently reside in and bring that point of view to us with dusty laments and lap steel twang.
The album as a whole feels like demos that were brought to life by the musical wizards that help make up Wilco, along with Jeff Tweedy. Recorded live in The Loft, Cruel Country falls in line with Tweedy’s solo output over the last couple years. Most of the Wilco output has come to life this way, pulling from Jeff Tweedy’s vault of “one song a day” and then putting it through the band to bring the songs some sheen and edge. But staying in the same lane driving at the same speed for an hour and fifteen minutes can make for a extremely long drive.
These songs give me the feeling I used to get a my grandma’s house on Christmas Eve. My uncles would collect in the dining room with their acoustic guitars and sing, red-cheeked and intimate, for the warm audience of my grandma and chattering grandkids. I sat in another room watching my 2-year old daughter play with whatever new toy she received, hearing the voices and strummed guitars in the background. The songs were there if I wanted to lock in, or if I wanted to just get on the floor and play with my mini-me I could do that, too. No obligation to sing along or engage.
If what you’re looking for is something you can play in the background with little engagement, viscerally or intellectually, then Wilco have 75 minutes of quiet strumming and gentle harmonies for you. Cruel Country is what it is, a bunch of jangle-y songs that are never bad but are never great, either. There are some standouts, for sure. “I Am My Mother”, “Many Worlds”, “Hearts Hard To Find”, “Country Song Upside Down”, and “Sad Kind Of Way” are fantastic Wilco tunes. To my ears they stand out from the rest. Thought out, engaging, and the kinds of songs that grow over time.
As for the rest? Perfectly fine songs that I can’t recall seconds after they end. Not bad songs, but just kind of there. I feel this album would have had more impact pruned and edited down to 35 or 40 minutes. Or mixed with a few tracks where the amps were turned up and things get a bit adventurous. So much of this veers too close to what Tweedy does by himself that I feel the band is wasted. When you have a band full of musical wizards let them cast some spells, dammit.
I can appreciate the intimacy and vulnerability here. Jeff with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a microphone is a special thing. His songs in bare boned form are magical. Tweedy delivers them with ease, grace, and humility like very few artists these days. But when you have a band like what Wilco has become over the last 18 years I want to hear them weaving more than just easy breezy acoustic songs. They’re capable of blowing minds, and where we are right now in this world I’d rather have my mind blown than rocked to sleep.
I love Wilco. They’re still one of my all time greats, and are still one of the best rock and roll bands of the last nearly 30 years. And Jeff Tweedy is one of the great songwriters of my generation. Cruel Country is prolific, just not as engaging as what’s come before.
4 thoughts on “Wilco : Cruel Country”
I wanted to write and thank you for your piece on Wilco. I also wanted to bring to your attention, if you didn’t know this already, that while Wilco is associated with Chicago, it’s really St. Louis where their music, that is, their legacy band, Uncle Tupelo was formed as was their music. Tony moved the band from St. Louis to Chicago only after they achieved regional success. It was a smart move, as there was no music “industry” in St. Louis at that time. But that’s where the alt country-americana sound evolved. Tupelo was just one of many bands in town experimenting with that emerging genre. And believe it or not, they weren’t necessarily the best. But they had the good fortune to have weekly press coverage, thanks to a local music writer who gave them a steady stream of publicity, and a smart manager as well. I used to see Jeff and the band around town, at parties, though we didn’t socialize directly. It was mainly through musician Bob Reuter. Bob was a musician who worked the same scene as Tupelo, sometimes recorded with Jeff, and was equally responsible for the formation of the alt-country sound. Bob’s music goes back to the late 60 and over the years his songwriting evolved from folk to punk, to rock and eventually to a sound that only he could produce. Bob and I were the best of friends for nearly 30 years, and I was privileged to be in one of the many bands he formed over the years. The last time I spoke to him he told me about moving from his small southside apartment to a new place in downtown St. Louis. On move in day, he opened a service elevator door and stepped into an empty elevator shaft and was killed. Bob had been having, for the first time in his life, some real success with his music and touring. He was still living in poverty, as he had all his life, but things were looking up. There’s much more that I could say, but please check out Bob’s music, John. He’s an artist that’s still yet to be discovered beyond his hometown:
I did know of Tweedy’s roots in St Louis, but didn’t know about your friend Bob. I’ll certainly give his music a listen. And very sorry for your loss.
Yeah I wanna get this. I have all their others and play different ones at different times. I like your descriptions here.
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Also: “the musical wizards that help make up Wilco, along with Jeff Tweedy” LOL
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