Wilco – Cruel Country

Wilco goes country on one of their best albums yet…

“I think there’s been an assumption over the years that Wilco is some sort of country band”, Jeff Tweedy writes in the accompanying notes to 'Cruel Country'. As the title suggests, Wilco’s latest release is the album where, as Tweedy jokily puts it, “Wilco goes Country!” But don’t let that playfulness mislead you. 'Cruel Country' is neither ironic, nor frivolous: it’s a sprawling double-album that stands as one of Wilco’s best, an ever-moving meditation on the quest for connection in a country that’s often cruel but always worthy, in Tweedy’s eyes, of forgiveness.

Wilco recorded 'Cruel Country' almost entirely in live takes, with very few overdubs, and for that reason the band sounds more cohesive than on their previous album 'Ode To Joy' (which sometimes felt like a Jeff Tweedy solo record). There are, of course, slide guitars. But they’re used less to evoke country music and more to give a sense of expansive space, whether that’s the open spaces of the American West or the outer space beyond Earth that’s given Wilco so much creative fodder over the years.

Opener 'I Am My Mother' finds Tweedy twisting his trademark proverbial wisdom (“I’ve done the math with a stick in the sand, I’ve kicked a can into a fence”) into a Dylanesque drawl, something which comes and goes on later tracks. It’s a brief, low-key song that eases us into what follows: 21 songs, many under three minutes, that manage to sound both original and comfortably familiar. Even the most obviously “country” songs here are a juicy treat rather than a grating pastiche. 'Falling Apart (Right Now)' is an upbeat honky-tonker that plays with the lovelorn tropes of country in a lovable, self-effacing way (“Baby, being blue – when it comes to me and you, it’s always on the menu”), and a necessary gearshift from the slower, more introspective tracks that precede it.

And how fantastic those tracks are: 'Hearts Hard To Find' is a simple but achingly beautiful love song, while 'Many Worlds', which opens the second side, is epic in length and scope, a new and exceptional entry in Tweedy’s roster of songs about the cosmos. Its title touches on the “many worlds” theory of parallel universes, but in terms of content it’s more concerned with the world we have right here, and with how the vastness of space – stars, planets, galaxies – is a macrocosm of our tiny, fragile lives on earth: “When I look at the sky, I think of all the stars that die.”

The first half of 'Many Worlds' is about the furthest 'Cruel Country' gets from country music, and one of the few occasions when the production becomes more complex than six people playing their instruments together in a room. Another instance is 'The Plains', which rounds out the album. Underlaid with the sound of wind blowing over a microphone, it’s a folky, direct closing of the curtains, decorated with an anxiously polyrhythmic picked guitar solo.

That ambient sound – the sound of freedom and loneliness, of abandonment in the best and worst senses of the word – is a stand-in for what makes Wilco’s take on country-adjacent music so uniquely brilliant. As Tweedy puts it, “I like it here on the plains… There isn’t any point in being free when there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.”


Words: Tom Kingsley

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