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.