It’s safe to say that Wilco’s 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one of the most important albums to come out in the last two decades. It’s certainly one of the most important for me personally. It was one of the most striking sonic shifts that a band could make, while also simultaneously not changing the band on a fundamental level. Like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, Remain In Light, and Kid A that came before it, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot saw Jeff Tweedy pushing and shifting his band forward, even at the expense of losing longtime fans(and band members.)
Wilco had been my favorite band up to that point -since early 1997- after I’d bought Being There on a whim and felt my whole outlook on music listening rewired. That was a monumental double LP that saw a band taking the theory of the sophomore slump and setting it on fire. Not only did that album surpass the band’s modest debut A.M.(released only months after the demise of bandleader Jeff Tweedy’s previous gig Uncle Tupelo), but it nearly made it forgettable. Being There was an album that showed guts and songwriting prowess barely hinted at a year before. Country-tinged, but influences as diverse as the Kinks, Pere Ubu, The Minutemen, the Stones, and more came thru, while Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting shined with contemplative lyrics and longer, atmospheric songs that have since become live standards(“Misunderstood” and “Buried Treasure” for examples.)
In 1999 the band stepped even further out with Summerteeth, an album of melancholy, poetic pop rock songs that blurred the lines between the Beach Boys, art rock, and power pop and firmly landed the band at the number one spot on my favorite artists list. Period. Touches of Beatles, Big Star, Robyn Hitchcock, and psychedelically poetic lyrics that dealt with the heaviness of adulthood, parenthood, and relationship struggles that came through as anxiety-riddled fever dreams.
This was the album that sealed my fate as a longtime Wilco fan. It was also the album that would seal the fate of the band as it was the Jeff and Jay show; two co-dependent personalities slowly freaking out in the studio by themselves with the help of countless tracks, endless supply of instruments, cigarettes and painkillers. It was both a magnum opus and the death knell of the Bennett-era Wilco.
As much as l love Being There and Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was and still is the band’s seminal album. It was also two different albums. One was the proper follow-up to Summerteeth, with Jay Bennett losing his mind in the studio building a better, more complicated pop rock monster. Then there’s the album that was released, which was a deconstructed version of Bennett’s beast. It was the record that Jeff Tweedy handed over to musician/producer/music guru Jim O’Rourke to mix for the band. Layers and layers of Bennett excess were pulled back like layers of an onion to reveal what had begun as bare acoustic tracks Tweedy had recorded on a handheld recorder. Accentuating the melodies with subtle sonics and whizzing electronics, what Jim O’Rourke did was reveal a band in the cold, stark sunlight of a wintry Chicago day. It was bold, magnificent, poetic, and was the dawn of a new day for Wilco.
Last year was the 20th anniversary of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and to celebrate that anniversary Wilco released a newly remastered version of the 2002 masterpiece. It’s new remastering brought subtleties into focus, while never changing or “updating” the sound. This record was perfect when it came out, and there wasn’t much tinkering needed, but the remastering was a nice touch.
There were also two super deluxe boxsets released of the album, one with 7 LPS and another with 11 LPs. I wasn’t going to buy either because I felt that the original LP is perfect. I’ve heard plenty of the unreleased songs and alternative versions of songs over the years. As much as I love Wilco and YHF I just didn’t think this was an expense I needed to take on. But then I listened to ‘The Unified Theory Of Everything’ version of YHF, which was an alternate version of the album that had more of the Bennett-esque vibes. The songs were a little messier and louder. Is it a better version of YHF? No. What was released is and always will be the version that should have been the official album. But this alternate take on a classic feels more Summerteeth-related. It has that album’s ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ vibe in these versions.
I won’t go into details of the songs, but I’ll just say there’s a new version of “A Magazine Called Sunset” that opens “The Unified Theory Of Everything” that must be heard. Also, ‘Remember To Remember’ is an alternative version of A Ghost Is Born’s “Hummingbird” that is darker. “War On War” almost sounds like Fleetwod Mac’s “Say You Love Me”, while “Ashes Of American Flags” goes into “Revolution No. 9” territory.
Once I heard that I knew I was going to buy that deluxe version. Another bonus is the live show at the Pageant Theater in St. Louis, recorded on July 23, 2002. That show showcases the 4-piece version of Wilco that hit the road in support of YHF post-Jay Bennett. My wife and I saw this version of Wilco in Columbus, OH a mere week before YHF dropped in April of 2022, and it’s still a concert highlight for me. The band they are now is an unstoppable force live, and I’ve seen them several times. But there was something special about that April 2002 show, and that lineup of Tweedy, Stirratt, Bach, and Kotche. They were still figuring it all out, playing that album live. And it was like this high wire act coming together right before your very eyes. So unbelievable.
If you’re a huge Wilco fan I feel this is a must have. There’s an 8-CD version of the super super deluxe that’s like $102. Well worth the price of admission, in my opinion. However you listen to this, listen. It’s a stunning and staggering collection of alternate, live, unheard, and radio station spots of one of the most important rock and roll albums in the last two decades. And maybe even a decade before that. So worth the price of admission.