ALBUM REVIEW: Wilco, Cruel Country
Wilco returns with Cruel Country, another studio album for dads to swear by. Frontman Jeff Tweedy’s pre-Wilco band Uncle Tupelo is famed for pioneering the alt-country genre, a label that has been used to describe many of his projects. Critics have also identified Wilco’s genre as alt-rock, indie-rock, and, much to frontman Jeff Tweedy’s chagrin- “Dad-rock.” Though Tweedy described this genre to Esquire in 2014 as “unflattering and hurtful,” I would also describe it as accurate. My earliest memories of hearing Wilco’s music were driving down the freeway in my Dad’s old Nissan truck as he blasted the melancholy “Impossible Germany”. Considering that Jeff Tweedy is a father of two sons, the description seemed pretty on the nose. Tweedy certainly lives up to his title, sporting his signature dad-bod silhouette and overgrown gray hairstyle and beard.
I saw Wilco perform in October of last year on their North American Tour with Faye Webster. Despite the 24-year-old indie-folk darling’s presence onstage, the crowd at the Orpheum Theater in Downtown Los Angeles seemed to be primarily retirees and beer-chugging late millennials. My friends and I were some of the only people under the age of 25 swaying, and white-girl dancing to classic Wilco hits like “How to Fight Loneliness” and “Jesus, Etc.” The audience demographic surprised me because especially given that Faye Webster opened, I was under the impression there had been a recent uptick in Gen-Zers listening to this style of indie music more in an attempt to be subversive. Though the performance was excellent, in my opinion, the set had a calmness to it that made me see why younger people may overlook bands like Wilco in favor of something more high energy.
Despite all of this context, the themes of Cruel Country are applicable to listeners of all generations. Tweedy wove many lyrics with political undertones into the songs on the new record. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Tweedy says, “More than any other genre, country music, to me, a white kid from middle-class middle America, has always been the ideal place to comment on what most troubles my mind — which for more than a little while now has been the country where I was born, these United States.” The title track of the album expresses a disappointed but hopeful outlook about the future of the U.S. The line “I love my country, stupid and cruel” describes the jaded patriotism Tweedy and other Americans feel towards their home country in the wake of the pandemic, during which Tweedy wrote many of the songs on the album. The warm country sounds are twangy and familiar, while the messaging in the lyrics attempts to push back against the patriotic narratives that dominate mainstream American country music.
“Country Song Upside-down” starts with the line “I found a song upside down, a country song,” speaking to Tweedy’s pandemic songwriting process and how the songs he was writing during this period were naturally trending towards that type of sound. Wilco firmly steps out of the rock genre with Cruel Country, which has defined most of their past work, incorporating instruments like lap steel and baritone guitar into the sound palette. However, Tweedy concedes in that same Rolling Stone article, “there have been elements of country music in everything we’ve ever done.”
The opening song, “I Am My Mother,” gives nonbinary, especially the line “I’m a new man, but I am still my mother.” Tweedy talks about trying to “mend every broken fence” of his life but is resigned to embodying the similarities between him and his mother. The song acknowledges the deterministic nature of life and that we cannot control many aspects of our lives. Our parents' genetics and how we were raised impact our lives as we get older in ways we may not want.
Towards the middle and end of the album, the lyrics begin to take on a more serious tone as Tweedy grapples with his mortality. The song “A Lifetime to Find” contrasts an upbeat folky tune with lyrics about Tweedy’s feelings about death and how he has chosen to live his life so far. In part of the song, Tweedy speaks as death, proclaiming, “I can see you’ve tried your best/The problem is just this, it's too late for regrets/I am here to collect,” referencing the terrifying truth that life may end before you have lived it the way you want. The chorus “It takes a lifetime to find/A life like the life you had in mind” recognizes that it may be death, which finally makes Tweedy realize how beautiful his experience has been despite the aspects he was dissatisfied with.
At 54, Tweedy’s voice has become slightly more gravelly, which compliments the Americana vibe of the album. The lyrics tell a story of the initial fear and gradual acceptance of aging, a thought process that likely plagued Tweedy during Covid isolation when he crafted these songs. But as a double album over an hour and ten minutes long, Cruel Country gets a little boring to a Gen-Zer with a fried attention span like me. The sounds become slightly repetitive and begin to blend together. Yet Tweedy’s voice is as comforting as always, so it is still a pleasant listening experience. Every album Wilco makes is good, but this one is great. The complexity of Tweedy’s lyrical themes and the band’s nuanced take on alt-country can satisfy its fatherly audience and younger listeners alike.