Thursday, December 7, 2006

"I am an American aquarium drinker, I assassin down the avenue"

#18 Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco, Nonesuch, 2002

Like it or not, it's a fact that September 11th, 2001 is a cultural nodal point for Americans. There's definitely a distinct separation in my mind, and political consciousness, between the seemingly carefree time before it and the anxiety-ridden, continually war-torn years after it. When I think back to the first bright spot after those dark days, it's in direct connection to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Serving as a DJ for Duke's radio station, one day in April of '02 I noticed that there was a copy of the much-lauded new Wilco record on the playlist. Having heard nothing off of it, I randomly selected "Pot Kettle Black" to feature on my show. The smooth percussive groove of the song and biting commentary of the lyrics, "It's become so obvious, you are oblivious to yourself" struck a chord. Immediately after my shift, I hit Radiofree up and rushed home to play YHF continually for the rest of the year, absorbing the genius of Jeff Tweedy.

Despite the fact that it was recorded before 9/11, it offers an amazingly prescient view of a post-9/11 world. "Ashes of American Flags" is, for all intents and purposes, the most prophetic song ever recorded: "I would like to salute the ashes of American flags/And all the falling leaves, filling up shopping bags." On "Jesus etc." Tweedy softly comments over fiddles that "Tall buildings shake, voices escape, singing sad sad songs," and on one of my favorite tracks, "War on War," he forcefully sings over driving melody that "There's a war on, you're gonna lose/You have to lose, you have to learn how to die." Really, the resonance is scary.

But it's not all eerie - anyone who's seen the excellent documentary about the making of this record, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, can attest to that. Despite the fact that the band had to buy their music from their former label so they could release it and then self-destructed in the process (they lost two members during the recording of the album), there is still joy that escapes in bursts, especially in one fantastic scene involving Tweedy and his son. "Heavy Metal Drummer," the song in question, is one of the top summer feel-good songs ever, and the upbeat guitar and horn histrionics of "I'm the Man That Loves You" could win any girl worth her mettle. And "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" epitomizes drunken love with its staggered, slurred poetry approach in such a way that it endears even as it admits to its inability to commit. Of course, the sheer low-fi intensity of both "Radio Cure" and "Reservations," with their nods to Radiohead's new direction, act as somber bookends.

When Sarah and I moved to Chicago in the summer of last year, the first thing I noticed when I stepped out our front door were the Marina City Towers on the immediate horizon. These beautiful buildings grace the cover of YHF and symbolize Wilco's love of their hometown as much as they make an oddly foreboding nod to those two towers that would not exist shortly after the record's conclusion. What a strange, wonderful, and moving metaphor. What a strange, wonderful, and moving record.


ATrain said...

methinks this is not the last appearance of YHF on this blog....nice post

Sean B said...

The respectful my-top-25's-OK-your-top-25's-OK lovefest is over. I will venture to say that YHF is actually Wilco's fourth best record:

1. Summerteeth
2. Ghost is Born (why this was considered a weak album, I will never know.)
3. Being there
4. YHF

Granted, YHF is still a solid B+ album, but compared to the others it sounds cold (which is not a problem per se), and worse, boring.

Big Cougar said...

I agree with you that YHF is "boring" if by boring you mean interesting and beautiful. For me, each countdown is an exercise in personal interest, nostalgia, and taste. There is room neither for Kant's 3rd Critique nor for Alain de Boton's winsomeness with this experiment, i.e. no need to argue for universal taste. And, because of that, I can respectfully applaud your ranking even though it 1) is the inverse of mine, 2) leaves off AM, and 3) seems an attack upon the particular. Of course, you can also mock my universal system of liberal, enlightened toleration for all tastes as itself a particular-denying system, i.e. unwilling to tolerate argumentative dissention. So, perhaps, we should call a Wilco symposium on Urbane after the countdowns end, a prospect ATrain might perhaps second, and hash it out.

Sean B said...

Being a good enlightenment liberal, I relent. Let me make amends by lauding part of YHF - "Jesus, etc." is a fantastic track, not the least because it appears to have been titled by naming the first word followed by etc. It reminds me of a Simpsons moment. Homer is in Mr. Burns' sauna making free long-distance calls. He confidently prounounces into the phone: "operator, give me Thailand! That's T-I, and so on..."

Also, Summerteeth in position #4?

Lucky Strikes said...

This is the one album I've always been told to find but have never really listened to. Santa will be generous this Christmas...

Big Cougar said...

Sean B:

Summerteeth, while an excellent album, always comes in next to last for me. Obviously, I like YHF the best, Being There was the first Wilco record I got and ranks second for that reason and, like you, I think Ghost is Born is under-rated. That leaves Summerteeth to edge out the Uncle Tupelo-influenced AM for fourth. I don't consider the Billy Bragg records in this equation as they, for one, involve Billy Bragg.

ATrain said...

A Wilco symposium? Here, here!!