Make no mistake about it, The Whole Love has the best bookends a Wilco album has ever seen. The opener "Art of Almost," over its several movements, shows how powerfully this band can groove together -- they play with as much sonic glitch as Radiohead and are just as commanding. They dive into a rhythmic space that sounds so fresh and evolved that it could only come from years of playing together and complete creative trust with one another. And ultimately, from being a band that's still, confidently, about doing whatever they want.
Then there's the ending, "One Sunday Morning." The tone is set with a beautiful repeating acoustic guitar riff, while a vast assortment of delicate sounds float by in conjunction with each passing verse. Tweedy gets into a conversational stream of consciousness about a conflict between spiritual awakening and spiritual suffocation. It's an intimate narrative that's easy to get lost in. As you lose yourself in the hypnotic pensiveness that ultimately leaves you looking forward down the road, you don't realize that 12 minutes has gone by. It's a classic ending reminiscent of something out of the Bob Dylan playbook -- think "Highlands" from Time Out of Mind or "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" from Blonde on Blonde. They hit you with so much over the course of a record and then just crush you with a heavy final statement.
The opener and closer strongly state that Wilco is moving one step forward, finding new interesting and experimental territory together -- just like we want them to. They sound like a band that is still challenging themselves and their audience. The rest of the record is negotiable, filled with only good and oftentimes great songs. Here's where we get into the kick in the nuts about Wilco: with The Whole Love being their eighth LP, they have to live up to their powerful and successful discography and also, as an aging band, they have to deal with the rock 'n' roll myth of everything having to be fresh and new all the time. Yes, the myth that it's really all about their old stuff and when they were cool. You know, before people referred to their music disparagingly as "dad rock."
Perhaps it started with their last record, Wilco (the Album). The band, even with its tongue-in-cheek title and approach, just pumped out an album of great songs, but it lacked the mindfuck of experimental sound that the band had concurrently leaped from with each album throughout their career. How dare they allow us to just enjoy songs without feeling a bit uncomfortable and confused? The Whole Love's middle can easily fall into the standard Wilco fare -- not as obviously challenging as Yankee or Ghost, and not nearly as raw as the records from the nineties that slowly melted and expanded their alt-country idiom.
But when you dig deeper into these tracks, you find all the nuances you've come to expect from Wilco's music. Harmony vocals that are just so deliberately layered that it makes you want to desperately sit down and play music yourself, or contrasting breaks where Nels Cline lays down abstract noise guitar while Tweedy whimsically responds by whistling -- it's enough to make both Beatles and Sonic Youth purist cream in their shorts. Seriously, after repeated plays, there are not too many dull moments on The Whole Love. The hooks keep getting stronger and there's an abundance of sounds perfect for headphone bliss. Sure, it probably doesn't fit into the tastemaker's golden nugget of the new freshness and hotness, but that's the beauty of longevity -- we're many years past that with Wilco. We've seen struggle, success, change, death, addiction, recovery, etc. And through all the beauty and turmoil there has been a continuous thread of rock music that speaks to life, not some fleeting moment that you're not even sure you're a part of. It's an honest assessment of being beautifully flawed and the reality of marching forward ungracefully with incredible insight and something interesting to say. It's clear with this record -- like all of their records -- that people will be listening to it forever. And connecting with it forever. I'm pretty sure that's the whole love.