Album: Cruel Country
Released: May 27th, 2022
Highlights: I Am My Mother, Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull, Tired of Taking It Out on You, Hearts Hard to Find, A Lifetime to Find
Although they arguably reached their artistic peak while operating within the indie and alternative scenes, the country rock label was always attached to Wilco. It made sense. For starters, the band’s frontman, Jeff Tweedy, initially emerged as one of the leaders of alternative country group Uncle Tupelo; therefore, a lot of Wilco’s early work – particularly their first two albums – exhibited traits of the genre, as if their key songwriter was progressively working his way through shedding the skin he had accumulated in the beginning of his career. Meanwhile, down the line, as Wilco grew slightly freakier and notably more experimental, the country qualification remained even if not much of the style could still be clearly identified in the band’s sound; this persistence might be harder to explain, but it can be attributed to numerous reasons: the popularity of Wilco’s early material, the fact none of their alternative generational peers came as close to the acoustic tonality of the genre, and the generally downcast demeanor Tweedy often showed during the group’s indie incarnation.
Yet, even though country was always there in some form or intensity, the bottom line is that Wilco never truly embraced the genre, at least not through the course of an entire album. Their first two records carried way too many radio-friendly electric anthems to qualify, and the works that followed may have had plenty of contemplative acoustic music, but they usually received a rather weird treatment before being committed to tape. That reality, however, changed with “Cruel Country”, because in their twelfth release, the members of Wilco – as stated by none other than Jeff Tweedy – throw themselves into country music without much reservation.
Based on the length of “Cruel Country”, one has to assume that either the band was very enthusiastic about that perspective or Tweedy happened to have a lot of unreleased country songs stashed away in his closet, because the album clocks in at nearly eighty minutes and contains twenty-one tracks. From the start, it is reasonable to see those numbers as problems; after all, rock history has shown repeatedly that long records are only able not to sink under their own weight if they check one of two boxes: variation or message. “London Calling” and “Exile on Main St.”, for instance, thrive because of the former; “Quadrophenia” succeeds due to the latter; and “The Suburbs” showcases both traits. “Cruel Country”, though, does not have these qualities.
In style, the songs merge into one another, since most of them are short acoustic tracks with delicate electric or piano ornaments; and over this instrumentation, Tweedy steadily sings in the sullen whispery mood he has uniformly adopted during the last decade or so. In message, meanwhile, “Cruel Country” does not really have a powerful overarching theme. Before the album’s release, Tweedy spoke of how the record was an examination of the beauty and ugliness that the United States was capable of producing; and country does indeed come off as the appropriate genre for that confrontation because while there is a lot of beauty in it, the style also has an intimate relation to regions of the country where ugly political ideas have the most traction. This interesting contrast, though, does not materialize lyrically to a very notable degree, because even if it is alluded to in the title track as well in a few others, the truth is the tunes that make up “Cruel Country” are mostly concerned with general sadness and relationship trouble.
The combination of these absences could spell disaster for the album, but surprisingly it does not. Surely, there will be listeners who will come away from “Cruel Country” thinking its songs are too similar and that the monotony of its mood mixed with its length turn the work into a nice substitute for sleeping pills. It might not be the fairest assessment, especially since “Cruel Country” is one of those albums that need to be given plenty of time for the music to sink in and the hooks to start emerging from the thick persistent fog; however, it is a reasoning that can be understood: perhaps a little more variety could have helped, maybe a stronger editing process could have made the record’s qualities be more evident, and there is a chance Tweedy could have elevated a few of these tunes by trying not to sound hopeless through an entire track. Nevertheless, the fact remains that “Cruel Country” might be the most enjoyable Wilco album in a long while.
Just like Big Thief had done it in February with their equally countrified and long “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You”, Wilco prove that sometimes lengthy albums can throw variation and message out the window to succeed via sheer songwriting power. Although they may take time to emerge, mostly because Tweedy does not wrap his voice around them too strongly, the melodies are notable throughout the record, regardless of whether they come to the forefront in choruses of sweeping sadness or in quiet verses whose nice little variations can pass by unnoticed. When it comes to lyrics, even if Tweedy is moving through places and themes that are very recurring to him and his audience, the words tend to not only land well, but also show that indie gloom goes rather nicely with a country tinge.
Moreover, despite not being stylistically varied, “Cruel Country” does a good job stretching its muscles in the tight realm it operates. Cuts with a full-band setup contrast with songs carried solely by Tweedy’s voice and his acoustic strumming. The slide guitar goes from evoking contemplative sadness in some tunes to ushering a borderline happy country fair flavor in others. And Wilco does not miss the chance to throw some of their alternative flair into these mostly rural proceedings. Although these odd turns are overall not very frequent, there are a couple of songs with extended instrumental codas, there are a few tunes that have unexpected variations in structure in spite of their brief nature, and there are tracks where traditional country instrumentation takes a back seat to Wilco’s more sparse ambiance, with drums, punctual guitars, keyboards, and other effects filling up the space.
“Cruel Country” may fail to reach the target Tweedy set for it, because not much in its constitution materializes as a trip through the beauty and ugliness of the rural United States. However, as a journey into country music by a band that had long been associated with the genre while never fully dabbling in it, the album is a success. Obviously, as an indication the group could have dug a little deeper, the material would have benefited from a thematic approach a bit more distant from the Wilco standard or from a higher degree of variation in mood. But it is safe to say most who spend a good amount of time with “Cruel Country” will be happy the band finally embraced their country roots in a nigh unadulterated state. And there is a good chance those fans will appreciate the fact that instead of a normally sized package of forty minutes, Wilco has delivered a whopping eighty minutes of good music.