The Atlantic Monthly
May 3, 2012
There's a lot to say about the best rock record of the new millennium, but too few people talk about what it actually said. When it turned 10 last week, the appreciations for Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot largely focused on the trivia surrounding it: the way it was rejected by one Warner Bros. subsidiary only to be bought by another; the fact that it was streamed online at a time when doing so was unheard of; the acclaimed documentary about its creation; and the spookiness of the fact that its songs—replete with references to falling buildings, charred flags, and nameless dread—were originally set for a Sept. 11, 2001 release.
But the album endures because of its music, not its mythology. And that's not just because of the often-cited fact that it mixed folk and rock with other genres—Wilco and plenty of other alternative-leaning bands had already gone experimental in the '90s. Rather, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 's triumph was in how it captured a facet of human nature: the way we all send signals, hoping that someone will understand them but also anxious about what happens when someone does. You'll sometimes hear the album get called cryptic, or self-conscious, or difficult. And that's fine. It's really a soundtrack for the ways in which people ask to be misunderstood.
Jeff Tweedy asks to be misunderstood from the first verse, after the toddling rhythms and warm acoustic guitar strumming of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" lock into something resembling a song. "I am an American aquarium drinker," Tweedy sings sleepily. "I assassin down the avenue." Huh? All diehards have their interpretations, but they should be premised upon the idea that Tweedy's lyrics are poetry. That's not in the sense of "so good that it's poetry" but in the sense that the words were chosen for their shapes, for shadows they cast, and for the ways they can be misheard.
This isn't empty, trying-to-be-deep evasiveness. It's self-conscious, afraid-to-be-honest evasiveness. Again and again, Tweedy returns to the disconnect between what's on his mind and what's on his tongue. The angst here, and there's plenty of it, is over the way that that disconnect is both self-created and agonizing. "Radio Cure," one of the album's stranger-sounding songs, puts it most plainly. On it, Tweedy addresses a lover who doesn't feel very loved. "Something's wrong with me," he confesses, and then lays out a dichotomy. His "mind is filled with silvery stuff / honey, kisses, clouds of fluff" but it's also "filled with radio cures / electronic, surgical words." He holds affection, but is too shy, vulnerable, or drugged out to communicate it. So he signals. It comes out all wrong. And the distance between himself and the person he loves just gets wider.
Even the seemingly straightforward tracks confront the challenge of being straightforward. On "I'm the Man Who Loves You" he tries to pen a love letter but botches it. The lounge gait and country fiddles of "Jesus Etc." back up the words of a man who can't even reassure his "honey" without his mind drifting to the apocalypse. The strum-along folk of "Poor Places" dissolves into the static-y, cryptic radio transmission that titles album—just another encoded broadcast on a record full of them. Two tracks in, Tweedy imagines a device to help him communicate authentically: a camera to "hold to my eye / to see what lies I've been hiding." Of course, the name of the gadget is misspelled as "Kamera." More self-imposed signal interference.
He sounds happiest over the neon power pop of "Heavy Metal Drummer," on which he reminisces about carefree teenage summers. It's crucial that the album's most direct track looks backwards. There's the shield of time to mute real feeling; nostalgia works as distortion, making the colors brighter, emphasizing the happy. Elsewhere, when he tries to put words to the idea of what clarity might look like in the now, the result is impressionistic nonsense. "Ashes of American Flags," for example, lumbers in a head-achey haze until a gorgeous bridge where Tweedy attempts, wooden-tonguedly, to envision serenity: "I want a good life / and a nose for things."
A big part of the band's genius here was in translating Tweedy's lyrical conceit into sound. Wilco's first three albums had proven that its members could write catchy, complicated folk-pop songs—the same kind of songs that make up Yankee Hotel Foxtrot . But as the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart showed, the band took those unvarnished tracks and reverse-engineered them to be weird: to float along uneasily on "Radio Cure," to sputter maniacally as in "I'm the Man Who Loves You," to disintegrate and rebuild as on "Pot Kettle Black." The fuzziness of how people relate to one another was in that weirdness; the reasons people bother trying to relate in the first place was in the pop. The rise of the Internet over the past decade would seem to lend Tweedy's lyrics even greater resonance. "All my lies are always wishes"; "I'm down on my hands and knees every time the doorbell rings"; "It's become so obvious you are so oblivious to yourself"—these could be the drunken tweets of the poster-child for, say, the recent Atlantic cover story about how social media can isolate people and screw with relationships. But Tweedy's really singing about a universal, timeless crisis of communication. That's why so many people continue to take Yankee Hotel Foxtrot very personally. In high school, it sounded like Tweedy was speaking for me: This is how shy guys talk to people . In the time since, I've realized that no, this is how everyone talks to everyone. Saying what you mean is hard. What's astonishing about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is that it actually did it.