I remember a conversation with a drama teacher called Chris in late 1996 about how Being There was meant to be the album of the year, which was about the first time I really registered Wilco’s existence. I’d glanced at reviews of Being There in Vox or Mojo or wherever, but I considered them to be magazines for people in their 30s (like my drama teacher) rather than teenagers like me, who were after Björk and Orbital and Aphex Twin and other mind-blowing, envelope-pushing future music. “alt.country”? wtf? Who cared?
Fast forward six years, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot arrived to a new kind of hype that I wasn’t just reading but actively partaking in – the online kind, of leaks and streams and P2P and webzines. I was just starting to write for Stylus, and feeling a need, a compulsion really, to keep up with what all my American colleagues and contemporaries were getting excited about.
I read the mythology behind Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s creation with scepticism; record label refuses to release dangerously experimental, modernist LP by formerly classicist Americana songwriter who’s roped-in avant-garde Chicago experimental music luminary to oversee proceedings and add even more creative sonic fairy dust. Major record label subsidiary panics over how to market such a wilful album, and drops them, only for fans to protest and another subsidiary of the same major label, this one specialising in dangerously experimental, modernist music and, sometimes, jazz, to step in and release it after another six months of fevered whispers and illicit streams. The narrative seemed a little too convenient as a hype tool.
Even so, I was intrigued, and having bought, battled with, and almost really enjoyed Eureeka by Jim O’Rourke (the aforementioned experimental luminary) a couple of years previously, I took the plunge. The conversation with Chris the drama teacher didn’t cross my mind.
Actually listening to YHF started out like the wilfully experimental experience it was meant to be, the whirrs, buzzes, cracked percussion flurries, and deliberately obtuse lyrical vignettes of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” slowly unfurling over nearly seven minutes, clouds of static and weird, broken fragments of other songs floating through the coda. Four minutes in a rolling piano melody, which has been trying to establish itself for the entire duration so far, finally catches hold of itself, falls in step with the rhythm, and unravels beatifically, a song finally coalescing from disparate musical elements and revealing itself to be beautiful in the process. And then it dissolves in those clouds of static.
But after that, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot treads more prosaic ground. Or at least, it seems to; there are moments of strange, vatic emptiness between and even during songs, more clouds of static and radio interference that overwhelm the songs beneath them, but for the most part this record is the sound of a band playing melody-driven, country-tinged songs together, acoustic guitar, bass, and drums the main instruments even if other textures – organs, keyboards, unidentifiable analogue hums and blips – add space and colour. These decorations are just that; embellishments and garnish, rather than truly experimental foundations that the songs are built from. Apart from “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, that is.
Not that this is a problem, particularly, because the songs – even goofy numbers like “Heavy Metal Drummer” – are of pretty fantastic quality, especially the ruminative “Jesus, etc” and “Poor Places”. Why Reprise had a panic attack about releasing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot I cannot fathom; it’s no more experimental than The White Album, and songs like “Kamera” and “Pot Kettle Black” seem like pretty straightforward, radio-friendly alternative country to me, not a million miles away from the likes of REM.
The most remarkable, and possibly experimental, thing about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the way it’s mixed. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett had allegedly recorded masses of additional instrumental layers and experimental detours, which Jim O’Rourke stripped back to expose the heart of the band and the record. In the face of early-00s rock maximalism and pop bombast, it’s the delicate, organic, richly textured subtlety of YHF that feels most radical. With hindsight, it was this record, and the similarly sonically rich and not-country-anymore Is A Woman by Lambchop, which subliminally kick-started my decade-and-then-some long fascination with how records sound, and investigation into why they don’t all sound as good as this.
Until the last couple of weeks, when I’ve been thinking of writing about it for this project, I’d not listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in a long, long time. In fact, after an initial flush of going through their back catalogue and then a brief, rewarding affair with YHF’s similarly gently experimental follow-up, A Ghost Is Born, I’d drifted far away from where Wilco headed after this record. The fabulous bookends of 2011’s The Whole Love, “Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning” won me back to some degree by exploring similar territory to YHF and the more experimental moments of AGIB, so I have to conclude that I like Wilco best, by far, when they’re playing at being wilfully experimental, even if they don’t ever really get close to dangerous. I saw Chris, my old drama teacher, outside one of my favourite record shops the other month. I don’t think he saw me.