For the moment, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is best known as the album that Warner Bros. pegged as too uncommercial to release, leading to a long imbroglio that ended in Wilco's departure from the label and a shakeup in membership. That impression should change. Making a proper debut after a long season of bootlegs, streaming audio, and live performances, Yankee confirms what fans have long suspected: Wilco was right, the label was wrong, and the album could be the best of the band's career. Yankee takes the sonic experimentation of Summerteeth a step further, and like Radiohead, a group with which it has little else in common, Wilco seems to only get better the further out it goes. But its success has much to do with the fact that it stays tethered, however tensely, to its pop and country roots. On Summerteeth, listless, lovely melodies housed poisonous lyrics. Here, there's a sweetness that threatens at all times to erupt into chaos—musical, lyrical, or both at once. Mostly, Yankee just descends into chaos a little at a time. Like its drunken protagonist, the album-opening "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" dips into cruelty as it progresses, ending in a flurry of mumbled words, feedback, tinkling piano, and eerie rumblings from a string bass, before giving way to the sunny "Kamera." The rest of the disc reprises that pattern, and even on repeat listens, its transitions remain startling. Though the band and producer Jim O'Rourke explore the edges, the familiar Wilco sound is dominant, whether on a straightforward tribute to a lost paradise of easy love and loud music ("Heavy Metal Drummer") or while pushing gentle yearning into an eerie hell of howling noise and hypnotic numbers-stations transmissions ("Poor Places"). Yankee Hotel Foxtrot winds to a close with "Reservations," a song about finding love in the midst of confusion. "I've got reservations / about so many things / but not about you," Jeff Tweedy sings on the chorus, bringing an unexpected happy ending to an album that should now enjoy the same in real life.
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