With 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco finally shed the “that guy from Uncle Tupelo” baggage that had kept them from gaining the respect they clearly deserved, and Jeff Tweedy gained the confidence to follow his muse in previously unfamiliar directions with increasingly rewarding results. But with so much space now open to Tweedy and his collaborators, Wilco’s post-YHF studio work, while often brilliant, didn’t seem quite as cohesive as Being There or Summerteeth, albums that were eclectic but revealed a unified core the newer albums somehow lacked.
Part of this can be chalked up to frequent lineup changes, and the group seemed to be shaking this dilemma on Wilco (The Album), the second studio set from the band’s strongest lineup to date, and with The Whole Love, they’ve finally made another album that pays off with the strength, consistency, and coherence of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Like YHF, The Whole Love is the work of a band that’s stylistically up for anything, from the edgy dissonance of “The Art of Almost” and the moody contemplation of “Black Moon,” to the ragged but spirited pop of “I Might” and the cocky rock & roll strut of “Standing O,” but more so than anything the band has done since Being There, The Whole Love sounds like Wilco are having fun with their musical shape shifting. Even somber numbers like “Rising Red Lung” have a heart and soul that’s warm and compelling, and these musicians consistently hit their targets both as individuals and as an ensemble; Mikael Jorgensen’s keyboards bring a playful whimsy to songs that could sometimes use it, the guitar interplay between Tweedy, Nels Cline, and Pat Sansone never stops bubbling with great ideas, and bassist John Stirratt and drummer Glenn Kotche hold down the rhythm with equal parts of imagination and precision. With The Whole Love, Wilco have made an album where the whole is as strong as the individual parts: the musicians play off one another with the intuition and understanding that separates a real band rather than folks who simply work together, and the songs cohere into a whole that’s rich, intelligent, and often genuinely moving. Quite simply, this is the work of a great band at the peak of their powers, and The Whole Love is a joy to hear, revealing more with each listen and confirming once again that Wilco is as good a band as America can claim in the 21st century.