On “Just Say Goodbye,” the chillingly resigned final track of Wilco’s tenth studio album, Schmilco, Jeff Tweedy asks, almost breathless, “Why am I in my skin again?” It’s the sort of smirk-delivered melancholy that’s lurked its way into every Wilco album since 1996’s Being There, which marked their emergence as musical pioneers haunted by pop’s beautiful futility.
For a band wreathed with as many indictments as laurels, as many charges of settling into post-avant-garde “dad-rock” as praise for their artistry, it’s no surprise that Wilco’s always been preoccupied with getting reborn. Frayed, painkiller-comedown tunes. Migraine drone. Disintegrating folk romanticism. Garage homage with bubblegum shoegazing. Slipping from skin to skin, if anything, is their hallmark; a restlessness that’s moved them through styles, sometimes unsure of the goal, but always with a deep interest in the studio-as-canvas.
Enter: Schmilco; their shortest, weirdest album to date. It follows last year’s surprise triumph, Star Wars—an album full of disaffected swagger and Atari-era flourishes; an eruptive meta-power-pop comeback that ranks pretty high in the late-Wilco catalogue. Born from the same recording sessions, Schmilco feels serious, drastically cramped in comparison. In that tightened space, the play between John Stirratt’s bass and Tweedy’s low-string strumming rises into folky relief, somehow both skeletal and warm (check out “Someone To Lose,” with its wobble-groove reminiscent of Steeler’s Wheel). Even Nels Cline’s idiosyncratic guitar work seems beside the point. It’s hard not to notice Wilco simplifying, dissolving its self-seriousness, rediscovering its wit and tunefulness. Songs, for instance, like “We Aren’t The World Safety Girl”—a benumbed tip of the hat to high-school ennui, talk-sung over Mikael Jorgensen’s E-Street-Band-style keyboard riff. Tweedy jokes, “Oh let’s go, we can spend ourselves like money, / we’ll pretend we’re hundred dollar bills.” Blink your eye and you’ll miss the damaged nostalgia at work in such lyrics (and at work, in fact, on every song on the album.)
So, while this go-round finds Tweedy and company evolving toward a grizzled cynicism that’s even sort of fun at times (the way a Springsteen shuffle is fun until, seemingly out of nowhere, “Nebraska” blows you into an existential cornfield), the band’s impeccable timing, their interest in pulp-mysticism and cultural psychoses, their love of art-rock undertones, all seem shrunken and distilled toward hopelessness. Never has a Wilco album been more about lyrics. And never has Tweedy’s unswerving nihilism been more central to the mood—that beautiful attitude of Midwestern brokenness he’s stretched over two tumultuous decades in which America’s cultural conflicts have been so accelerated and beleaguered that, as Sonya Sotomayor puts it, “No one can breathe in this atmosphere.”
There’s a sense, throughout, that being mortal is a tragicomic drag; just a cosmic second in the great expanse where there is “nothing, absolutely nothing… so sad,” Tweedy laments on “Happiness.” What became of his dead mother’s body once donated to science, as the song tells us, is also beside the point; she could be anything, “maybe asleep in her grave.” When Tweedy grumbles “I gather things can change,” it’s obvious he doesn’t, in fact, believe they can—one of many decidedly bitter lines on an album that captures at least some facet of the country’s post-disillusionment fatigue. What had once been a burn-out’s romanticism on their masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is now an exhausted amusement at how horribly wrong the dream was—of a future, of American life, of love and memory.
And that’s Wilco: a knack for wielding the abyss as a half-sincere punchline against any soundscape they happen to choose. It’s a career-high bleakness for Tweedy, though one delivered with unusual melatonin cool; no easy feat for a guy so familiar with the maudlin. The album’s title—an allusion to Harry Nilsson’s deliberate aesthetic divergence, Nilsson Scmhilsson—is perhaps misleading; Schmilco is not a declaration of independence, artistically, nor is it silly or insincere, as the toss-off wordplay might suggest. It does, however, feel like an inversion of sorts, a Bizarro Wilco, maybe one last reincarnation on the band’s karmic wheel. Fitting, then, Schmilco ends with what might as well be a farewell kiss from America’s indie-rock elders: “we’ve tried so hard; just say goodbye.”