With an undulating electrical hum and the simply tapped time-keeping of Glenn Kotche’s drumstick, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot assembles itself out of the void. The first moments of the album swirl like the first moments of a planet: empty and dark, sprinkled with dust, then filled with warmth – the slow strumming of Jeff Tweedy’s acoustic guitar. Kotche’s drums reappear, with life this time, and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” begins.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot places Wilco in the same emotional spectrum occupied by contemporary releases like Bows + Arrows by the Walkmen, or even the Strokes’ masterful debut, Is This It? The album chronicles the wandering of a boozed and broken mind backward through a mournful tale of lost love, lost possibilities and remorseful acceptance. While it once might have seemed more appropriate to group Wilco with other “alt-country” rockers, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot clearly channels the same lost-in-the-big-city pathos as the Strokes and Walkmen. But Wilco seems to have mastered a sound that captures the wounded, drunken lover better than anyone else, one that is realized beautifully in the last minute-and-a-half of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
The album’s curtain-opener encapsulates the arc of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s story. As notes from an electric organ hover in the background, tinkling bells and the round clunk of empty bottles complement Tweedy’s defeated and backward-gazing lyrics. “What was I thinking when I let go of you…what was I thinking when I said good-night…what was I thinking when I said hello?” Gradually, the beauty of the song begins to disintegrate. By the time we reach the slow-moving breakdown of its conclusion, a repetitive and heavily-strummed cello and Tweedy’s street-corner, echoing voice signal that everything is coming apart.
At seven minutes, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” undoubtedly tries the patience of today’s pop-music listener; to be sure it even confuses long-time Wilco fans, many of whom disappointedly concluded that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot moves too slowly and never rocks. While it’s true that no song on the album bounces with the energy of Summerteeth’s “A Shot in the Arm” or Being There’s “Someday Soon,” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a masterpiece of production whose crispness and perfectionist production distinguish it from the band’s previous albums, recalling the creative leaps and bounds of the Beatles during the era of Revolver and Sgt.Pepper’s. The elements of music and sound layer so well in the opening moments of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” that it’s hard to remember why music can’t always sound at once this complex and this beautiful. In fact, given the amount of dissonant noises Wilco and producer Jim O’Rourke threw into Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it’s a marvel the album came together at all, and a credit to Wilco’s obsessive perfectionism.
But it’s also a symptom of the tumultuous storm of intra-band relationships Wilco navigated during the album’s production. As viewers of Sam Jones’ 2002 documentary know, the shipwreck at the end of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s squall came in the departure of Wilco’s guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, Jay Bennett. Along the way, the band was pushed from the Reprise label (a division of Warner Bros.), signed to Nonesuch (also a division of Warner Bros.), brought in producer Jim O’Rourke and percussionist Glenn Kotche (both members of Tweedy’s one-time three-piece, Loose Furs) and lost drummer Ken Coomer. But chaos can breed beauty, and as any listener can attest, the alternating twinkling, crashing, shaking, caressing sound of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot can find a home as easily in a green summer backyard as your buddy’s living room on a hot night with a bottle of whisky or your headphones the day after your love is gone.
O’Rourke’s production suggests both dark, dystopian city wreckage as well as idyllic green fields over which Tweedy’s voice both skips and stumbles. Throughout the album seeps a tone of remorse, loss and desire. “I want to salute the ashes of American flags, and all the fallen leaves filling up shopping bags,” sings Tweedy slowly, ushering “Ashes of American Flags” into an unlikely but effective transition with “Heavy Metal Drummer,” the most accessible tune on the album. But even here we find Tweedy continuing to dwell on something lost: “I miss the innocence I’ve known, playing Kiss covers beautiful and stoned.” He seems to spend the whole album both searching and looking back.
If the best lyrics in rock are love poetry, and the best in country tales of hardship, defeat and redemption, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot finds Jeff Tweedy combining both in an alchemy whose chemical residue looks, smells and tastes like a confused romantic lost inside his own wilderness. All he wants is the good life, but something – perhaps himself – prevents him from holding onto it. Foxtrot’s Tweedy is war-worn, but not so much that he can’t feel. “You have to lose/You have to learn how to die/If you want to want to be alive,” he sings. But it’s also Tweedy who desperately wants to hold onto his love in “Pot Kettle Black,” promising to keep her in his locket, “a string I never strum.” The nearly uplifting chorus – “every song is a comeback” – gives even the most jaundiced listener hope for a happy conclusion.
But as the strings fade and a soft wind blows in the background, a medical beeping emerges, and a different Tweedy steps into the spotlight for “Poor Places,” the album’s anthem. The lyrics are wildly different from “Pot Kettle Black” and the album’s other summer boppers, they are deeply depressing on a personal level. Here is loss presented; loss of life, loss of a love, loss of faith in oneself. The composition is so clear and simple that Tweedy’s lyrics are allowed to speak for themselves. He’s not going outside tonight, rather the Tweedy of “Poor Places” is melting down all alone in the heat, and when the song begins its climactic conclusion, it’s clear that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will provide no easy resolution. By the last minute, the song has broken down into static, an emotionless female voice repeating the album’s titular call sign as the world descends into oblivion around her.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot leaves us with glorious doubt. Tweedy’s voice disappears from the album’s finale a good three minutes before the music does, fading slowly back into the darkness with the creaking of a piano bench, the lightning bug zips of soft electronics and the whispered voice of a lover or a friend. There’s a melodic beeping, like the alien greetings from Close Encounters, echoing off tiles in some subterranean passage, perhaps on downtown