Indie icons Wilco have gone decidedly more straightforward, and less, frankly, ‘indie’, with their latest release, Sky Blue Sky, and while it’s definitely a step away from their acclaimed prior sound, the results, though at times mixed, are largely positive. Chicago’s Wilco has always been an alternative band that’s drawn on Americana sounds like country, folk, rock, and even pop, from Woody Guthrie to Spongebob Squarepants, so a step towards the more traditional American mainstream isn’t some ‘radical break’ with their past. And Sky Blue Sky is not a headlong dive into today’s pop music scene, but rather more closely resembles the pop/rock of seventies, especially – in ways mostly good, but sometimes bad – the work of sarcastic pop tunesmith Randy Newman.
Before he was an Academy Award-winning film scorer, Randy Newman crafted some of the seventies’ biggest hits (like “Short People”, “I Love L.A.”, “You Can Leave Your Hat On”, and many more), and his laid-back-but-honest song stylings with ironic-yet-told-with-a-straight-face lyrics can be heard on Sky Blue Sky. Instead of the more complex alt-pop/rock that made Wilco a critic’s darling (sort of a Midwestern Yo La Tengo), the group has gone a more direct pop/rock route, but, more importantly, have retained their beauty and emotion. Like sort of an alt-Newman, the songs are sometimes too cute by half, and the modern updating can be a little heavy at times, but mostly they’re just outright good.
Sky Blue Sky is mostly downbeat, with a few upbeat tracks, and there are highs and lows among both. Opener “Either Way” is one of the strongest ‘sad’ pieces on the release, very sad, slow, and low-key but powerful with emotion, before it gets bigger, more orchestral, and more powerful in its second half. The ‘bigger’ middle of the subsequent ‘working class childhood memories’ “You Are My Face” doesn’t quite work as well, but its more stripped-down beginning and ending do. The beginning of the next number, “Impossibly Germany”, might just be the best spot on the record, and the rest of “Germany” flows and grooves very well; heartsick, but not overwrought. The following world-weary “Sky Blue Sky” and the aching “Side With The Seeds” are both good, but not quite memorable enough (especially for a record’s title track).
Later on in the album, some sad songs are very effective, some not as much. The quiet “Please Be Patient With Me” is probably the ‘prettiest’ song on Sky Blue Sky, and touching in that way, but maybe the most effective on the record is the straight-up mournfulness of “Leave Me (Like You Found Me)”. Not reliant on any alt-maneuvers as it bores into the listener’s heart, it might be the clearest justification of the band’s mainstreaming. Unfortunately, Wilco decided to issue the less effective “What Light” as the album’s first single, whose honesty veers into Newman-esque treacle. Sky closes with “On and On and On”, whose raw emotion comes clear in the stripped-down number, but the piece literally goes ‘on and on’, taking too long to get to the nice breakdown at its end.
The upbeat chunk of Sky Blue Sky is in some ways more rewarding, but also more damning. “Hate It Here” is Newman-like, but in a very good way, wry, but with a great blues-y ride, making it both fun and affecting. “Walken” is more honky-tonk, but with particularly great blues guitar, and its ironic lyrics are some of those on the album that best match Newman. However, the up-tempo “Shake It Off” is easily the worst song on Sky Blue Sky. Too quiet and too cute in the opening, too slow in the middle, definitely too long – none of that is actually its biggest problem. Instead, it is the thudding chorus of “Shake it off!” that is the main flaw, clomping and stomping on the listener’s patience.
But “Shake It Off” is the exception, not the rule, on Sky Blue Sky. To a fresh ear, Wilco’s latest will be an enjoyable, winning album, more accessible than any of their earlier work. Its sales have born that out: debuting at #4 on the Billboard charts, Sky Blue Sky is easily Wilco’s most successful album ever. All of this was helped along by the band’s decision, after being frustrated over lack of radio airplay for prior releases, to license six of the record’s twelve songs for Volkswagen ad campaigns. That was, of course, only the latest in a string of decisions Wilco made with regards to Sky Blue Sky that have infuriated indie loyalists, decrying it all as some indie-rock version of Dylan going electric (or, for younger readers, Fergie joining The Black Eyed Peas). Yes, Sky Blue Sky isn’t another critically acclaimed indie-rock touchstone, like Wilco’s last two records (2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 2004’s A Ghost Is Born). But what Sky Blue Sky is is a flat-out good, even great record, and if your dad likes it too, well, there’s more to music than the generation gap.