The narrative around Wilco’s 12th album, Cruel Country, was established immediately by the horse’s mouth: “Wilco goes Country!” announced the band’s social media accounts on April 28. In an accompanying statement, main man Jeff Tweedy declared that he and his bandmates were ready to “embrace the simple limitation of calling the music we’re making country.”
For some longtime fans of the Chicago-based sextet, that statement likely elicited excitement about a return to the twangy sound of Wilco’s first album, 1995’s A.M., and its follow-up, 1996’s Being There—two pillars of alt-country’s heyday in the 1990s.
For newer fans, it probably seemed like just the latest excursion for a band who have spent the past 25 years gently pushing and pulling on the boundaries of rootsy American guitar rock. If you fell for Wilco in, say, the 21st century, a country record is not so much a return to a form you once loved as it is another subtle shapeshift in a long line of subtle shapeshifts.
Cruel Country is a little bit of both … and neither. More than that, though, it’s a document of what a super-skilled songwriter and his super-skilled band are capable of when they strip away the distractions and focus on doing what they do best: composing, playing, singing and recording great songs.
Don’t be mistaken: Wilco’s distractions are not of the nefarious type. We’re not talking about drugs or reality TV shows or band infighting. But most of the time, being in a big band like Wilco means things like approving T-shirt designs, doing interviews, attending Zoom meetings, flying places to play concerts and enjoying access to a band-owned studio filled to the brim with instruments, wherein you can indulge every noise-making and production whim that strikes your fancy during the recording process.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the members of Wilco spent a year or two not dealing with at least some of those distractions. Specifically, Tweedy spent lots of time at home, co-hosting a popular (and entertaining) show on Instagram Live and, presumably, writing songs that had more time and space to exist and mature on their own than many of his songs that ended up on Wilco albums. And then, when Wilco finally did come together at their Chicago studio, The Loft, they were compelled—by the time they’d spent apart and the unsettling state of the world, according to Tweedy—to play songs simply, resist experimentation and record mostly live, often in single takes.
That’s why Cruel Country is a comforting and enjoyable listen—not because it’s more or less “country” than Summerteeth or Sky Blue Sky, but because it is an unobstructed look at a world-class musical machine staying out of its own way. There are country elements, of course, most often in the form of swooping guitar parts played by Nels Cline and Pat Sansone, or Glenn Kotche’s intentional percussion choices, like the clip-clop sound that echoes in the background of the title track or the boom-chick feel of lead single “Falling Apart (Right Now).” Particularly successful in this vein are two tracks buried deep in the album’s second half: “A Lifetime to Find” is a death-obsessed twang-splosion that sounds like mid-’90s Wilco enriched by decades of experience, while “Country Song Upside Down” is a beautiful midtempo ballad backlit by elegant, almost ambient strings.
But Cruel Country also boasts sparsely arranged folk songs about harrowing memories (“Ambulance”), piano-led waltzes that radiate worry (“I Am My Mother”), expansive folk-pop songs that could’ve fit on Summerteeth (“Hearts Hard to Find”), extended acoustic jams (“Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull”) and easygoing shuffles like “Hints” that kind of sound like every Wilco song ever, all rolled into one. And there are some intriguing stylistic outliers, too, most notably “Mystery Binds,” which sounds like Wilco doing a Kings of Convenience impression, and album closer “The Plains,” which wraps a devastatingly bleak Tweedy lyric (“It’s boring / They don’t tell you that”) in murmuring noise. Recurring themes throughout Cruel Country include love, death, fear, death, regret, death, forgiveness, death, languor and, you guessed it, death. It should be noted here that these themes come through loud and clear, in part because Tweedy is actually singing again! This is a very welcome development after Wilco’s two most recent (and underwhelming) albums, Schmilco and Ode to Joy, on which he too often settled into mumbles and sighs as the band clattered around him.
At 21 tracks, Cruel Country is, unsurprisingly, a bit too long. There are a handful of songs here—“The Empty Condor,” “Tonight’s the Day,” “Many Worlds”—that benefit from fuller arrangements and feel like they could’ve been held back for a future Wilco album. If they had done that (and cut the right tracks), Cruel Country could’ve been a true return to the band’s twangy roots—and a very effective one at that. As it is, it’s an album that gets back to basics and shines a spotlight on a particularly uncluttered version of Wilco that offers a little something for everyone.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.