Every all-time great band has an era, a run of a few years where fans and music historians alike can look back and say “this is when they made their greatest impact.” That’s not to say that what came before or after isn’t great or without meaning. It’s simply an acknowledgment of greatness,of when an undeniable mark was left on the music industry. As music fans and journalists, it’s important to showcase these high marks of creativity and genius for the generations to follow. In this article, Wilco’s run of two studio albums, one documentary, one live album and a lot of rock ‘n’ roll stories will be given the spotlight they deserve.
When you mention Wilco to the average person, there’s an immediate name recognition with their fourth studio album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and for good reason. The album is considered by many to be one of the greatest of all time, a claim I wholeheartedly agree with. The 2002 release kick-started a three-year run of musical excellence and serves as a time capsule of sorts, a period of time which featured artistic chances being taken, creative freedom, a light being cast on problems within the industry and all of the personal dramas that make for one helluva rock ‘n’ roll story.
Wilco’s first three albums were much more in line with their alternative country roots, with most of the original band members having played in Uncle Tupelo prior to that group ending and Wilco forming. Those first few albums were great in their own right, but Jeff Tweedy began to have new creative ambitions. A new, more experimental sound that at times sounded like vintage rock ‘n’ roll, combined with eclectic electronic sounds and Tweedy’s trademark lyrics, which could perhaps be best described as hope meeting in pain, a realistic blend of human emotions that listeners couldn’t help but identify with. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would be a creative coming-out party of sorts.
With the band beginning their creative renascence, the friction began to mount behind the music. Tweedy, as part of his quest for a new sound, began to make changes to the band’s longtime lineup, bringing in Glenn Kotche first to re-record some demos and then later, to become the band’s new full-time drummer. Another friend of Tweedy’s, Jim O’Rourke, was brought in to remix “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and wound up staying on for the completion of the record, often favoring certain members of the band over others in his mixes, leading to additional behind-the-scenes frustrations.
While the band itself would be happy with the finished product, the label was not. Reprise Records would ultimately reject the album and while stories vary about exactly how things went down, the end result was Wilco leaving the label and taking the album with them. In a story that shows how convoluted Corporate America and the music industry had become, Wilco and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were picked up by Nonesuch Records, who had the same parent company as Reprise (Time Warner). The album that was dismissed for “not having a single” and not being commercial enough for one part of a major company, was good enough for another part of that same company.
The results were clear: Tweedy’s gambles and change in direction paid off. The album was a critical and commercial success that propelled the band to a whole new level of recognition. The hybrid sound of vintage rock ‘n’ roll meets modern-day alternative indie rock captured the hearts and minds of many, making Wilco a band for a whole generation, resulting in their prior efforts getting new exposure. Songs such as “Jesus, Etc.” and “War on War” garnered national and worldwide acclaim, forcing the band’s prior label, Reprise, to rethink certain business decisions that resulted in more non-commercial sounding bands getting a shot.
Wilco’s 2004 follow-up, A Ghost Is Born, saw them continue on the path the previous album had led them on, remaining more experimental in nature but still at its core, a rock ‘n’ roll band with often times heavy, yet relatable lyrical content. There was a certain vulnerability to this record, a bearing of the soul from Tweedy, as he sang about relationship struggles and his issues with substance abuse creeping into a few tracks as well. Tweedy would check himself into rehab prior to the tour in support of the album. A Ghost Is Born would earn the band two Grammys, including Best Alternative Rock Album and was the band’s first album to break the Top 10. Commercial and critical success aside, fans adored this record, seeing it as a worthy follow-up to an album that made them fall in love with the band.
The band had achieved a lot in essentially a two-year span of time, not only breaking out, but redefining themselves and their sound, capturing a worldwide audience’s attention. This whirlwind time period also saw the release of the 2002 documentary, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, where filmmaker Sam Jones got far more than he bargained for with the story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot being recorded. The documentary covers the changes in sound, the friction in the band that resulted in the lineup changes, the fallout with the record label and also, the human aspect of what it’s like to be a husband and father, supporting his family the best way he can, all while trying to make a piece of life-defining art.
Wilco’s several-year run of being propelled to fame and acclaim was capped off by a double live album, Kicking Television: Live In Chicago, which was released in November of 2005 and had been recorded over two nights a few months prior. The highly praised live effort heavily features tracks from both Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born and comes off as a celebration of a really special time in music. Those two albums for many fans, myself included, are two all-time greats, truly career and genre defining albums, released less than two years apart of each other. In the history of music, there haven’t been many examples of a band or artist pulling off a feat like that. The behind-the-scenes turmoil of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the personal anguish behind A Ghost Is Born bleed through the way is so often the case with the most impacting art and the results are masterpieces. Kicking Television: Live In Chicago celebrates those masterpieces and leaves fans with a love letter of sorts to those albums.
Wilco has continued to produce amazing work since this era, and as I said earlier, the three albums prior to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were also highly enjoyable. What the band did in the few years’ span between writing and recording Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the release of the live album though is rock ‘n’ roll history and should be forever mentioned alongside the other stories that define the genre. Wilco did a lot more than try to break our hearts. They changed music, for the better, forever.