This Is Not a Joke so Please Stop Smiling

I used to read Rolling Stone a lot. A ton even. I thought they were the arbiters of cool, the popes of musical chili town. Early on this decade, they ran many stories concerning Wilco’s efforts to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It seemed every time I picked up the magazine, there was something about the album and how/ when it was it going to be available. When it came out in 2002, I picked it up sort of as a reflex because of the coverage Rolling Stone gave it. I wasn’t sure what to expect and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it.

Then the record totally blew my fucking mind.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was not like anything I was listening to at the time.  I savored that. Every time I listened to the album I thought how it was what music could be and what music was supposed to be. In my head, I developed simple, boring stories that I set to the songs. They lacked plots and distinct characters but the Wilco songs made them something more to me. It turned them into pictures of a beautiful, cold decay.

Each song on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had a unique atmosphere. So much goes on in the tracks that I still find things in the mix that I missed on every previous listen. From the swirling epic scope of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and “Poor Places” to the more straightforward approaches of “Kamera” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You”, every track packs layers and layers together to develop a wide range of emotions.

The songs also have the mark of tension on them. The relationship between Jay Bennett, Jeff Tweedy, and Jim O’Rourke was an interesting transitional phase in the history of Wilco. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot captured Bennett on his way out while Tweedy and O’Rourke developed a new musical understanding.

In high school, I spent many piano lessons with my teacher trying to figure out “Poor Places.”  The chord progression is simple enough but playing the chords alone never felt like playing the real song. I spent a lot of time with a Yamaha practice keyboard plugged into my guitar amplifier trying to recreate the sounds on the record. I also spent a lot of time trying to get that amp to sound like the guitar part on “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” The sounds of the instruments on the album are hauntingly wonderful and unattainable.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot also ruined Wilco for me. My expectations for the band were unjustifiably high. I went through their back catalog and enjoyed it, but it was never Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I never gave A Ghost is Born, Sky Blue Sky, and Wilco (The Album) a chance because they were not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Even the versions of YHF songs on Kicking Television left me cold. Wilco has continued to produce great music since YHF, but for me, it’s not the same.

And that’s a good thing! Things change! Such is life. The Wilco of now isn’t the Wilco of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The Wilco that began Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was not the same Wilco that finished the album. While intricate and well-crafted, the album also has an immediacy that remains even after repeated listens. The capture and treatment of these songs is something that I have not heard anything compare and probably never will. In many ways, that’s for the best.

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