Wilco Re-embraces Country Music, After a Long Estrangement, on Forthcoming ‘Cruel Country’ Album

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With Wilco’s first couple of albums in the mid-1990s, the band got saddled with an “alt-country” tag that was perhaps inevitable, especially coming out of the ruins of Uncle Tupelo, a group that helped form that subgenre as a movement. And for the last quarter-century or so, Jeff Tweedy and company have endeavored to shake it off. But in what may be either a case of new inspiration or “if you can’t beat it, rejoin it,,” Wilco is finally “going country,” as Tweedy puts it with tongue only partly in cheek, on a new album.

Due out May 27, the double album “Cruel Country” has a clear double meaning in its title, referring to a promised running commentary on America and its history that will be accompanied by Wilco apparently embracing country music as a form in a bigger way than it did even in its earliest, rootsy, pre-“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” days.

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That same weekend, Wilco will premiere the album live at its Solid Sound Festival in North Adams, MA, playing the collection in its entirety.

Thursday’s announcement arrived with the release of a music video for a song from the new set, “Falling Apart (Right Now)” (see below), that gives a strong indication of the direction of the project.

“I think there’s been an assumption over the years that Wilco is some sort of country band,” Tweedy wrote in an essay-long piece announcing the project. “To be specific, early on, coming out of Uncle Tupelo, that really felt like a widely held belief. And, sure, there’s a lot of evidence to support that way of thinking about our band, because there have been elements of country music in everything we’ve ever done. But to be honest, we’ve never been particularly comfortable with accepting that definition of the music we make. With this album though, I’ll tell you what, Wilco is digging in and calling it Country. Our Country. ‘Cruel Country.’ Country music that sounds like us to our ears.”

He added, “In the past, it was always valuable and liberating for us to steer clear of the ‘country’ moniker. It helped us grow and keep our minds open to inspiration from near and far. But now, having been around the block a few times, we’re finding it exhilarating to free ourselves within the form, and embrace the simple limitation of calling the music we’re making country.”

The recordings are hot off the griddle, as it were, with sessions having begun early in 2022 in Chicago. Tweedy said they didn’t know what kind of record they were going to make, coming into the studio, and figured the process would be as experimental or exploratory as ever. But the pandemic layoff fed into what turned out to be a desire to do something that felt more elemental, and Tweedy says they ended up recording everything together as a unit for the first time in about 15 years.

“Looking for novel shapes while sitting smack-dab in the middle of the giant disorienting and unfamiliar shape that is our world at the moment felt untethered and futile,” said Tweedy. “So country and folk songs started happening. Loads of them. The tried-and-true became the ground on which to project the world’s hallucinations. ‘What is happening?’ ‘I don’t know. Let’s see if it makes more sense sung to a waltz.’ With six people playing together at once, these were also the songs easiest to latch onto quickly. Which helped us all focus the urgency we were feeling into new songs to sing.

“The whole record is comprised, almost entirely, of live takes, with just a handful of overdubs,” he continued. “Everyone in the room together with a leaky drum booth and no baffles. It’s a really great way to make a record. But due to artistic curiosity and no small shortage of challenging logistics, it’s an approach we haven’t used in years — maybe not since ‘Sky Blue Sky’ (in 2007). It’s a style of recording that forces a band to surrender control and learn to trust each other, along with each others’ imperfections, musical and otherwise.”

Wilco - Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis
Wilco - Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis

Jamie Kelter Davis

Wilco already had some substantial album news recently, albeit on the archival front. The group announced only nine days ago that the 20th anniversary of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” would be celebrated this fall with seven different special editions of that 2002 release, which in many ways has remained Wilco’s signature album. The most elaborate of these, a Super Deluxe Edition, will contain 11 vinyl LPs and one CD and including demos, drafts, instrumentals, a full 2002 concert recording and a September 2001 radio performance and interview. Altogether, the Nonesuch boxed set will contain 82 previously unreleased tracks as well as a newly remastered version of the album.

The group recently played the “Yankee” album in its entirety at a series of shows and appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show to perform a track from the classic, “Poor Places.”

As for “Cruel Country,” which will be on the band’s dBpm Records label, Tweedy is comfortable characterizing it as a concept record thematically as well as musically.

“Once I started listening back to what we had done — as ‘Cruel Country’ began to take its shape as a double record — a narrative began to emerge,” he wrote. “In spite of ourselves, and all of our concerns and efforts to distract, we had made an ‘American music’ album about ‘America.’ And if you listen closely I do believe there is a rough chronological outline of how we got here, to the present-day USA, that is. … It’s all mixed up and mixed in, the way my personal feelings about America are often woven with all of our deep collective myths. Simply put, people come and problems emerge. Worlds collide. It’s beautiful. And cruel. The specifics of an American identity begin to blur for me as the record moves toward the light and opens itself up to more cosmic solutions — coping with fear, without belonging to any nation or group other than humanity itself.

“Which leads us to death. There’s death… quite a bit of it actually. Maybe you’ve come to expect that from my songs. If you haven’t, you should, because I’ve given up entirely at resisting the topic… but here, let’s at least put it in the context of a dying empire. As we’ve done our best to embrace the stress and joy of not knowing what happens next. What does it all mean? What are the connections? How does it relate to itself? How does it relate to ME? When a record asks me those questions, I can listen forever.”

The “Cruel Country” track list:

1. I Am My Mother
2. Cruel Country
3. Hints
4. Ambulance
5. The Empty Condor
6. Tonight’s The Day
7. All Across The World
8. Darkness Is Cheap
9. Bird Without A Tail / Base Of My Skull
10. Tired Of Taking It Out On You
11. The Universe
12. Many Worlds
13. Hearts Hard To Find
14. Falling Apart (Right Now)
15. Please Be Wrong
16. Story To Tell
17. A Lifetime To Find
18. Country Song Upside-down
19. Mystery Binds
20. Sad Kind Of Way
21. The Plains

Wilco’s 2022 tour dates:

Fri. May 27 – Sun. May 29 – North Adams, MA @ Solid Sound Festival
Sat. Jun. 11 – Oslo, NE @ Loaded Festival
Mon. Jun. 13 – Copenhagen, DK @ Amager Bio
Fri. Jun. 17 – Zeebrugge, BE @ Zeebrugge Beach Festival
Sat. Jun. 18 – Kent, UK @ Black Deer Festival
Wed. Jun. 22 – Barcelona, ES @ Poble Espanyol
Sat. Jun. 25 – Murcia, ES @ Plaza De Toros Murcia
Mon. Jun. 27 – Madrid, ES @ Noches Del Botanico
Mon. Aug. 28 – Martha’s Vineyard, MA @ Beach Road Weekend

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