Wilco's 'Cruel Country' Is a Murky Reflection of American Identity
Published May 23, 2022Wilco haven't been considered a "country" band since their 1995 debut, and even then, it was a bit of a stretch. Despite Jeff Tweedy and co.'s roots in the alt-country scene of the late-'80s/early-'90s on A.M., the former Uncle Tupelo members seemed more indebted to the Replacements and Exile on Main Street-era Stones than the country greats that inspired those quintessential bands, even when repurposing classic tropes about gamblin' ("Casino Queen"), love lost ("Box Full of Letters"), and drinking and driving ("Passenger Side").
Refusing to be pigeonholed by their past and present ultimately benefitted Wilco. Over the next five albums, the band would experiment with everything from musique concrète and krautrock, to sunny psychedelic pop, cementing themselves as one of America's greatest bands.
Meanwhile, the country that birthed them continued to curdle. "I love my country, stupid and cruel," Tweedy weakly croons on the title track of the band's 12th studio album (and first double album in 26 years), Cruel Country, sounding equal parts proud, weary, and disappointed. And really, why shouldn't he be?
As Tweedy was in and out of quarantine living his best life as an aging Gen-Xer, accomplishing more pandemic goals than most — like playing in a family band and writing a book — his countrymen seemed hellbent on destroying democracy and rewriting its future. All of it hangs heavy over Cruel Country's 21 tracks, although not always explicitly.
On the album's title track, slide guitar acts as an unnerving antagonist to the tune's clip-clopping percussion and sing-song delivery, grating on the listener right as they get comfortable and creating a general sense of unease. Similar to A Ghost is Born's 15-minute track "Less Than You Think," which mirrored the experience of having a migraine, the sensation will feel especially familiar to anyone who's spent the better part of the past two years lying awake at night.
Elsewhere, Tweedy is more on the nose. "There is no middle when the other side / would rather kill than compromise," he sings on "Hints," a song whose upbeat folk-rock belies the tune's pointed lyricism about America's torn social fabric, paranoia, and history of oppression.
But despite its name, there isn't much country on Cruel Country, nor scathing indictments of the land and its people. More so, it's a murky reflection of personal and national identity at a time when it feels like the scabs covering the wounds of both can never fully heal.
Often, it comes across in the album's overall sense of urgency. Nels Cline's guitar heroics and Glenn Kotche's wild man drumming — hallmarks of the band's explosive live performances and recordings from 2004 onwards — are mostly absent here. Recorded almost entirely of live takes with limited overdubs, Cruel Country feels fittingly under-thought and immediate, if a bit restrained — like a get in, get out trip to the grocery store — which will probably be refreshing to longtime fans, but disarming for those looking for modern folk-pop rock perfection à la Summerteeth or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Like all double albums, there's also a sort of nebulous, disorienting quality to Cruel Country when listened to in full, with no clear singles nor fluff worth removing. For a band with such a fervent following, it's hard to imagine which tracks here would get placed permanently in a live setting — save for "Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull," a Jerry Garcia-esque two-parter that veers into jam-band territory and will surely leave fellow Illinois native Ryley Walker thoroughly stoked.
Cruel Country also contains some of the band's most awe-inspiring music, especially in the album's middle. Seemingly triggered by the weight of the world, Tweedy looks inwards, then outwards on companion pieces "The Universe" and "Many Worlds," going full cosmic country without the pastiche and peculiarities usually associated with the subgenre. ("The universe," Tweedy sings on the former track, "for better or worse, it's the only place to be.")
With our collective unconscious preoccupied with uncertainty, there's something about listening to the band who wrote Being There arriving at Be Here Now that feels truly liberating — even if the moment, like every good moment, is fleeting. (dBpm)