If Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born were Wilco's bold, mid-career thesis, Sky Blue Sky and Wilco a timid antithesis, then The Whole Love is a smart synthesis. It sounds as if the band gathered up all the territory they have covered since 2001 and deconstructed it. The joy of The Whole Love is hearing Wilco revel in finding new places to put familiar pieces. Though the album is far from groundbreaking, the band proves they can still be relevant to the musical conversation without being the experimental mavericks they were a decade ago.
To expect Wilco to continue making the same music they explored 10 years ago would be both an unfair and unrealistic expectation. As musicians grow older, this shift is an integral and inescapable facet of every band's evolution. And though the band makes few unexpected turns on The Whole Love, that is the album's greatest strength. Wilco's strong suit has never been their genre leaps from record to record; it has been their keen combination of styles. As Rolling Stone mainstay David Fricke pointed out, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was fantastic because it had everything: "there's pretty stuff in there, there's hard stuff in there, there's mystery in there, there's really sweet tunes, and there's an abrasion in there as well. But it's all there."
The songs that ended up on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot were a far cry from Wilco's previous alt-country work, which was largely accessible to the average listener. They were a beautiful mess. The album was rejected by their label Reprise after Wilco refused to make changes to render it more "commercially viable," and the band was subsequently asked to leave the label (they would later be picked up by Nonesuch, a small subsidiary of AOL Time Warner, foreshadowing the death of major labels and the rise of independents). But the real significance is what band leader Jeff Tweedy decided to do in the aftermath of the label war. In a world that was still dominated by major labels, the newly liberated Wilco did the unthinkable: They streamed the whole album for free on their website.
To today's audience, an album leak seems more an inevitability than a shocking strategy. However, in the early aughts, music was not dominated by the blogosphere in the way it is now; major record labels still held sway, and were able to rake in some good cash for their bands with proper releases. By growing their fan base with a musically challenging album, without a label, and by giving their music away for free on the Internet, Wilco prefigured the state of the industry by several years. Few bands -- Radiohead comes to mind -- were afforded the luxury of even trying this stunt, let alone pulling it off. But while Radiohead continued to make stylistic leaps from album to album, Wilco slowed down, relaxed and made themselves at home with their mid-tempo rock.
That's not to say these albums weren't good. The deconstructed Americana that filled A Ghost Is Born was arguably their most challenging work; it proved more divisive to both critics and fans than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had, and never quite caught on like its predecessor. The addition of guitar visionary Nels Cline for Sky Blue Sky maintained the extended jamming the band indulged in on A Ghost Is Born, but the album still came across as a bit of a snooze. Wilco fell further into their tepid brand of "dad rock" on 2009's Wilco, failing to regain the bite and menace of their previous work. Gone were the provocateurs that asked the hard questions. Wilco became familiar faces giving the easy answers.
Released almost exactly 10 years after they were dropped from Reprise, The Whole Love is Wilco's first entirely self-produced LP and the first to be released through their own dBpm label. This seems to be the catalyst that allowed them to recapture some of the risk and danger that colored their turn-of-the-century work. The album begins with "Art of Almost," a broken-down industrialized groover that is the closest the band has come to the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot since its release. Like with almost all of the songs on their opus (and like few since) the band situates itself atop a precariously balanced arrangement that sounds like it could topple at any moment. The muscular chug of "I Might" comes across as the more adventurous cousin of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot cut "Kamera."
While the rest of the album never quite matches the daring nature of those first two songs, they retain the essence of that opening salvo, introducing a healthy amount of din and discord (a la Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born) into songs that wouldn't seem out of place on just about any other Wilco LP. The relative straightforwardness of "Born Alone" is punctuated by the squall of Cline's searing riffs. On "Standing O," Tweedy screams, "Maybe you've noticed I'm unashamed of anything that I've done!" While Wilco may never regain the freewheeling joy of experimentation, they prove that, sometimes, a band divorced from the pressure of throwing curve balls can still make some great tunes.