A lot of critics had a hard time swallowing Wilco’s forray into musique concrete. Many of them said living with sound files leaked on the Internet for a year allowed them to warm up to the album’s beauty.
Evidently, these writers never cozied up to John Zorn’s Elegy.
Yankee Foxtrot Hotel is probably more comfortable terrain for an indie rock crowd than Wilco’s long-time alt-country fans. (Although making a distinction between the two audiences is pretty much splitting hairs.)
The sonic flourishes Wilco employs on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, “Ashes of an American Flag” and “Poor Places” would sound more at home on a Flaming Lips album than on anything remotely associated with the phrase “No Depression”.
All that to say Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is probably more geared to folks unfamiliar with Wilco at all. (Myself — I owned a copied of Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression untill I had to sell it to shore up my shaky finances.)
Sure, there are enough straight-forward pop tracks to ground the album from being too experimental — “Kamera”, “Heavy Metal Drummer”, “Jesus, etc.”, “Pot Kettle Black”.
But it’s Jeff Tweedy’s head-long dive into prepared pianos, sound effects and thickly-layered samples which gives the album its distinct identity.
“Radio Cure” starts off as a quiet tune, but eventually, strange sounds encroach on the song’s arrangements. “War on War” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” both indulge a bit in some latter-day Edge guitar effects, ca. Achtung Baby.
Some very atmospheric sounds swirl in and out of “Ashes of an American Flag” till they build up to a wall of white noise that crackles and breaks into a segue for the following track.
“Reservation” sums up the album’s aesthetic by keeping the rhythm section to a minimum and the sound effects on full tilt.
It’s easy to see how listeners expecting folk guitars and alt-country instrumentation can be put off by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s experimental abandon. But that’s probably the whole point.
This album isn’t business as usual, and by creating a work as challenging as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco has opened itself up to an audience that can appreciate Americana music filtered through a post-modern lens.
In reality, this album isn’t too far removed from Emmylou Harris’ landmark album, Wrecking Ball, or to the dissonant-friendly machinations of Robin Holcomb. Haunting, beautiful and disturbing — what could be more appealing?