Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Super Deluxe Edition) Album Review

On the deluxe editions, Wilco has curated all the usual demos and outtakes, radio interviews and live performances into different albums representing different sets of possibilities and outcomes, each with its own evocative title. There are american aquariumrawer and weirder but still mired in the pop palette of summer teeth. There are Here is everyone, darker and slightly more caustic. There are Alone in the depths, which gives the impression that they have opened the door of an overloaded closet: a fall and a crash of ideas. These iterations aren’t just points on a timeline leading to a familiar destination; the creative process was far too messy for such a neat trajectory. Instead, they demonstrate that nothing on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has never been settled, not even its title. Even elements of the more modest 7xLP set (which includes the american aquarium version) and the 2xLP release (which features the familiar songs in remastered form) speak to the album’s mutability.

It’s a fascinating idea, especially for this particular album, given the thoroughness and thoroughness with which the band went into every song, every lyric, every note. “Camera” looks particularly flimsy, with each version being a completely different snapshot of the same view. On american aquarium it opens with a dramatic drum fanfare that is clearly reminiscent of Phil Spector, before launching into a measured gallop. Everything is built, no reward. They deleted everything and started over Here is everyone, with keyboards like a barrel harpsichord and a more insistent rhythm that taunts Tweedy. And then there is the version on The Unified Theory of Everything which replaces all of that with a fuzzy guitar and Tweedy sings like he’s fronting that local “Heavy Metal Drummer” band. What would have happened if the band had stopped with one of them instead of reinventing the song several more times?

This precariousness once clung to the album, which perhaps explains why it was received with such enthusiasm, even reverence, 20 years ago. The band was breaking up, with longtime drummer Ken Coomer being harshly fired and Bennett taking on a bigger role. There were new faces (Kotche, O’Rourke) and new challenges, most of which were drug related. On some level we had to realize that the record was unfathomably close to not existing, at least not in this form, and the music on our version of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot transmits this feeling of was almost not. We’re lucky in this universe, because Wilco has found a way to ensure that their relentless explorations reinforce rather than obscure the humanity of these songs. It’s a dark album, for sure. When Tweedy sings that you have to withdraw money from an ATM to buy “Diet Coke and unlit cigarettes” (does anyone sell alight cigarettes?), the moment still sounds like a monumental sigh. When he sings about watching a heavy metal band take the stage “on the landing in the summer,” the memory still resonates with warmth and wonder. And when he sings about the assassination in the avenue, it’s still disconcerting. (Hearing him sing “J’assassine l’avenue” on the american aquarium version of the song doesn’t clarify anything.)

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