Review: Wilco’s Understated Magnum Opus ‘Cruel Country’

Wilco was a musical throwback when he started in 1994. In a decade of grunge and hip-hop, he was instead inspired by a boomer trinity of the band, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And now that the band itself has decades of its catalog behind it, “Cruel Country” also looks back on Wilco’s past; the band used a similar hand-played, live studio approach on their 2007 album, “Sky Blue Sky”. The country music that Wilco adopted on this album, and to which most of “Cruel Country” returns, has a particular vintage: the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were pushing country into rock while bands like the Grateful Dead, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers connected three-chord country with psychedelia.

Half a century later, on “Cruel Country,” the sound is even more nostalgic, though it still leaves room for exploration, especially in a handful of songs that open with the kind of jams that Wilco extrapolates on stage. Stumbling or shuffling at mid-tempo, the songs can often sound serenely resigned. But there is an underlying tension in the lyrics and in Tweedy’s scratchy, subdued and openly flawed voice. He looks tired but stubborn, clinging there like the music he clings to.

The album opens with “I Am My Mother, a waltz about an immigrant’s hopes and roots: “Dangerous dreams have been detected on the southern border,” Tweedy sings. And in “Hints,” he contemplates a nation bitterly divided, urging, “Keep your hand in mine” but noting, “There’s no middle ground when the other side/Rather kill than compromise.”

The album juggles between despair and perseverance, seriousness and humor. Wilco offers twangy, flippant, chicken-plucking country in “Falling Apart (Right Now)”, where Tweedy complains, to a partner or population, “Don’t fall apart while I’m falling”, and in ” A life to find” – a conversation with death, which suddenly happens: “Here to recover.” And amid the tinkling keyboard tones and teasing slide guitar lines in ‘All Across the World’, Tweedy admits the mixed emotions of being at ease while others suffer – “I can barely stand to know what’s true” – as he wonders, “What’s a song gonna do?”

Corina C. Butler