- - Monday, September 26, 2011

The Whole Love

Wilco

dBpm Records

★★★★

Listening to a new Wilco album is like hailing a cab in an unfamiliar part of town. Sometimes, you get the ride you expect. Other times, the experience is full of unexpected twists and turns that take you far away from your original destination.

There’s a certain thrill to those bumpy rides. “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” with its experimental song structures and artsy bent, showed the complexity that bubbles beneath Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting, becoming the benchmark by which all of Wilco’s subsequent albums will always be measured. “Let us do the driving,” the album seemed to say. “We won’t steer you in the wrong direction, even when it looks like we’ve lost control of the wheel.”

“The Whole Love” is a slightly smoother ride that boils down the band’s nonconformist tendencies into something more accessible. Many of the songs still hold tight their eccentricities, including the imaginative opener, which shuffles between the conventions of hummable rock music and the ambience of Radiohead’s guitar-driven soundscapes. Eleven tracks later, the album comes to a close with “One Sunday Morning,” a 12-minute melancholic ballad that briefly shoots into outer space around the 8:30 mark before coming back down to earth during the final minutes.

Apart from the inevitable quirks, though, the album also features some of Mr. Tweedy’s most direct compositions in years. “Open Mind” is a straightforward love song set to a midtempo country groove, and “Capitol City” pays tribute to the Beatles with a jaunty, sunny vocal line that evokes a young Paul McCartney. The specter of the Fab Four also looms large on “Sunloathe,” whose orchestral arrangements might as well have been lifted from the “Abbey Road” sessions.

Mr. Tweedy is 44 years old, but he wears his middle age lightly throughout these songs, few of which sound as world-weary as some of his post-“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” work. For those who prefer their Wilco songs to be weird, “The Whole Love” still charts a zanier course than its predecessor, “Wilco (The Album),” which tied the band’s disparate styles into too neat a package. This album, the band’s eighth studio effort, proves there’s plenty of bump left in Wilco’s ride … and letting the guys do all the driving is still a good move. Take the wheel, fellas.

R.E.M. finally out of time

No one can blame R.E.M. for breaking up. The group never fully recovered from the blow it received in 1997, when Bill Berry’s departure cracked a core lineup that had been together for nearly 20 years. The magic still existed after his exit, but albums like “Accelerate” and “Collapse Into Now” felt more like victory laps than battle cries, with the band celebrating its past successes instead of aiming for new heights.

Still, R.E.M.’s decision to throw in the towel has left a hole in the musical landscape, widening the gap between bands that helped push alternative rock into the mainstream during the ‘80s and those that formed in the genre’s wake. When Coldplay played “Everybody Hurts” at a show Friday - a fine tribute, to be fair, and one that should be judged “for the gesture rather than its musical sound,” as Chris Martin smartly requested - there was something missing from the performance. R.E.M., like Coldplay, was one of the world’s biggest bands, but it was a different kind of “big,” one whose bigness was built upon a decade’s worth of grass-roots support and quirky, trailblazing appeal.

Today, bands climb to the top by evoking the glory days of other legacy acts. Coldplay began its career by putting a midtempo spin on Radiohead’s stadium bombast. Kings of Leon struck gold by turning U2’s soaring anthems into Southern rock songs. R.E.M. sounded like nobody else, though, and few subsequent bands have been able to reconstruct the group’s music to any significant degree.

“All things must end,” Michael Stipe wrote in the band’s resignation letter last week. Too true.

Neighborhoods

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