On the deluxe editions, Wilco have arranged all the usual demos and outtakes and radio interviews and live performances into different albums representing different sets of possibilities and outcomes, each with its own evocative title. There’s American Aquarium, rawer and weirder yet still mired in the pop palette of Summerteeth. There’s Here Comes Everybody, darker and slightly more caustic. There’s Lonely in the Deep End, which sounds like they’ve opened the door to an overstuffed closet: a tumble and crash of ideas. These iterations aren’t merely points on a timeline leading to a familiar destination; the creative process was far too messy for such a neat trajectory. Instead, they demonstrate that nothing about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was ever settled, not even its title. Even elements of the more modest 7xLP set (which includes the American Aquarium version) and 2xLP release (which presents the familiar songs in remastered form) gesture toward the album’s mutability.
It’s a fascinating idea, especially for this album in particular, given how thoroughly and painstakingly the band pored over every song, every lyric, every note. “Kamera” sounds especially shaky, each version a completely different snapshot of the same vista. On American Aquarium it opens with a dramatic drum fanfare that plainly recalls Phil Spector, before launching into a measured gallop. It’s all build, no payoff. They deleted everything and started fresh on Here Comes Everybody, with keyboards like a barrelhouse harpsichord and a more insistent beat that taunts Tweedy. And then there’s the version on The Unified Theory of Everything that replaces it all with a fuzzed-out guitar and has Tweedy singing like he’s fronting that local band from “Heavy Metal Drummer.” What would have happened if the band had stopped with one of them instead of reinventing the song a few more times?
That precariousness once clung to the album, which is perhaps why it was greeted with such enthusiasm, and even reverence, 20 years ago. The band was splintering, with longtime drummer Ken Coomer unceremoniously dismissed and Bennett playing a bigger role. There were new faces (Kotche, O’Rourke) and new challenges, most of which had to do with drugs. On some level we must have understood that the record came unfathomably close to not existing, at least not in this form, and the music on our version of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot conveys that sense of almost wasn’t. We’re fortunate in this universe, because Wilco found a way to make their dogged explorations enhance rather than obscure the humanity in these songs. It’s a bleak album, certainly. When Tweedy sings about getting money out of an ATM to buy “Diet Coca-Cola and unlit cigarettes” (does anyone sell lit cigarettes?), the moment still sounds like a monumental sigh. When he sings about watching a heavy metal band take the stage “on the landing in the summer,” the memory still resonates with warmth and wonder. And when he sings about assassining down the avenue, it’s still just as confounding as ever. (Hearing him sing “I assassinate the avenue” on the American Aquarium version of the song doesn’t clear anything up.)
All of these different iterations of the same thing coalesce into a bold statement of uncertainty, a clear-headed portrayal of confusion, a joyful depiction of despair—all contradictions that make the music more relatable, more immersive, more malleable. This anniversary set is also a reminder that the album has become more settled over time, thanks to Sam Jones’ documentary, Greg Kot’s book, Tweedy’s book, and countless reviews, profiles, and interviews. It has become familiar, perhaps comfortingly so—a reminder of a time in America that in retrospect appears quaintly fucked up. The Sound Opinions interview, recorded just after 9/11, is not only a compelling artifact, but a demonstration of how Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was already out of the band’s control. There’s a very specific weariness in Tweedy’s voice that’ll be familiar to anyone who lived through that day, and Wilco play these songs on air like they no longer recognize the things they’ve created. This anniversary box set pushes the album back off its axis. The music wobbles again, reminding us that unease and confusion were its most relatable aspects.
If Being There understood rock to be a fool’s errand and if Summerteeth presented rock as a fool’s consolation, then our Yankee Hotel Foxtrot shows how we fools (not just Tweedy, but you and me, too) desperately want music to reflect the world back to us. Even in those magical moments when a pop song does offer us a glimpse of something larger, it’s never enough. We want it to order the world, to make everything make sense, to throw senseless tragedies into reassuring relief. Music can’t do that. The world—not just this one, but each of the infinite other what-if worlds—is too gloriously, damnably messy for one band or one album or one song to capture. The world thwarts art, yet it’s all we have so we make do. That k