Wilco Rediscovers Its Original DNA on Warm, Sprawling ‘Cruel Country’: Album Review

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“I love my country like a little boy,” Jeff Tweedy sings on “Cruel Country,” the title track of Wilco’s twelfth studio album. “I love my country, stupid and cruel.” That sentiment rears its head throughout “Cruel Country,” a sprawling, cozy double-LP. Tweedy channels his admiration for America’s promise into warm, welcoming vistas deeply reverent of traditional folk and country music. But Tweedy spikes these slices of Americana with pointed reminders of the nation’s complicated history and ongoing injustices; for him, the beauty and the rot are impossible to disentangle.

According to Tweedy, “Country” adheres to a loose conceptual thread about America’s evolution, though you have to squint to trace it. But the thematic anchors are voiced with crisp clarity thanks to the continued sharpness of Tweedy’s writing. He has plenty of space to maneuver; at 21 songs and 77 minutes, this is Wilco’s longest album (nudging past “Being There” by 17 seconds). “Country” doesn’t harbor the grand ambitions of many recent double albums; it isn’t a versatile exploration of styles like Big Thief’s “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You,” nor is it a dense conceptual statement like Kendrick Lamar’s “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.” Rather, “Cruel Country” simply aims to answer the question, “What if a normal Wilco album took longer to end?”

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If that scans as a trying prospect for the Wilco-averse, the band’s advocates will find much to luxuriate in. “Country” marks the band’s most explicit embrace of its country roots since its inception. This longstanding strain within the band’s DNA has gone dormant, a skillset only gestured at sporadically since they dosed it with vibrant psychedelic-pop throughout 1999’s “Summerteeth.” How grounded in the country genre the new material truly is will be a matter of debate (to contextualize it utilizing the band’s preexisting spectrum, “Country’s” units of twang fall somewhere between “AM” and “Being There”); many of these songs loiter at the genre’s outskirts.

Genre aside, “Country” frequently feels like a band reinvigorated. As recently as last month, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to presume that Wilco is winding down; in the past five years, Tweedy released four solo albums, but only one with Wilco, 2019’s “Ode to Joy.” Even “Joy,” feather-light in texture and disposition, arguably shared more connective tissue with Tweedy’s solo releases than Wilco’s own. “Country” bucks that trend; these recordings are largely live takes, which grants even its most straightforward compositions a bouncy dynamism.

The clearest antecedent is “Sky Blue Sky,” the point at which Wilco eschewed the frosty experimentalism of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost Is Born” in favor of something more rootsy, spacious and bright. That sunniness permeates “Cruel Country.” The warm and empathetic “All Across the World” could comfortably slip onto a “Summerteeth”-heavy setlist; “Falling Apart (Right Now)” leans on Wilco’s pop sensibilities, pairing an affable bounce with Tweedy’s winking pleas for a partner to counter his own instability. Even when the material skews heavier, the arrangements mask it; “Hearts Hard to Find” is a bleak internal cross-examination (“I don’t mind when certain people die, I can’t cry …There’s something wrong with me, maybe I’m just bad”) underneath its bittersweet framing. “Hints” distills the political moment as succinctly as any lyric in recent memory (“There is no middle when the other side would rather kill than compromise”) but ultimately puts on a hopeful face (“Focus your mind on the fight and keep your hand in mine”).

A handful of outliers reinforce the record’s uniformity. The nervous energy of “The Empty Condor” shakes things up early on; “Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull” is looser, jammier and altogether stranger than its peers. “Many Worlds,” at nearly eight minutes, rides out on a refreshing, expansive jam. Still, nothing here knocks the album off its axis like “Bull Black Nova” once did. A few more stylistic diversions would have gone a long way to supercharge the album during its sleepier stretches.

“Cruel Country” captures a band wholly secure in its status; it does a handful of things very well, and does those things repeatedly, with few deviations. As is customary with double albums, online discussions will swirl over which songs to cut to achieve a hypothetical, airtight 10-12 song tracklist. Such arguments will be fair on the merits while missing the point of the record, which is to bask in the amiable breeziness of this world. Those searching for tension can find it tucked away in the album’s nooks and crannies, where Tweedy pokes at the scar tissue of a country he feels deeply conflicted about, one that has given him everything he ever wanted but is still the source of so much pain for so many. You may not notice at first; he does it with a smile.

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