With so much going on in the musical world of 2016, I can’t help but feel like I’m running to catch up with everything that is coming out. I am amazed that it has taken me nearly two months to write about a new record from Wilco, one of my all-time favourite bands, but I think that is a testament to the boom of creativity that I have felt in the last two years. After Wilco’s surprise release of Star Wars in 2015, I don’t think anybody was expecting a new album for at least a couple of years. Lo and behold, just over a year after receiving that eclectic and intriguing record, I have a brand knew set of Wilco songs to peruse. When Schmilco was announced, I tried to suppress my expectations. “Maybe it won’t have that cohesive Wilco album feel,” I thought, “maybe we won’t hear the radical change in tone that we’ve come to expect from them.” I would say there is a little of the former concern, but while Schmilco is certainly not one of Wilco’s best, it shows a band that is able to continue innovating 20 years into their storied career.
So where did Wilco take us this time around? Without a doubt, Schmilco is Wilco’s most folk-oriented album, featuring a strong emphasis on acoustic songs and reduced production. It can easily be seen as a direct contrast to Star Wars. Where Star Wars was harsh, frantic, and deeply textured, Schmilco is calm, pensive, and far more laid back. If it is comparable to anything in the Wilco family, it probably comes closest to Sukierae, the Tweedy side project from 2014. Jeff Tweedy’s delicate acoustic guitar playing below his comforting voice is the centre of the record, meandering through a series largely peaceful songs. The second MVP of this album has to be Glenn Kotche, whose precise and colourful drumming is perfectly in tune with Tweedy’s playing. The reduction in layers allows the interplay between these two musicians to really shine through, particularly on songs like “Cry All Day” and “If I Ever Was a Child”. Meanwhile, the rest of the band might be holding back a bit, but they accent the core songwriting perfectly.
While the tone of Schmilco may be calm and relaxing (for the most part), there is a certain longing and sadness that is hiding largely in the lyrics. The opening track, “Normal American Kids”, feels like a song to be played at a welcoming campfire, but is weighted with lines like “All of my spirit leaked like a cut / I knew what I needed would never be enough”. A song by the name of “Happiness” is ironically a tune that seems to drag itself along with a sense of defeat. “So sad it’s nothing / happiness depends on who you blame” marks the twisted refrain of one of my favourites on this record. Occasionally the tension really bubbles up on songs like “Common Sense”, a creaking, dissonant piece which features some of the most beautiful production on Schmilco. It’s an album that appears straightforward on first listen, but rewards the person willing to dig deeper, just like every other Wilco offering.
If I had one complaint about Schmilco, it would have to be that I feel the ending of the album is not all that strong. “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)” and “Just Say Goodbye” certainly aren’t bad songs, they just don’t leave me with that same satisfied feeling of other Wilco album closers, such as “Reservations”, “In a Future Age”, (or “Candyfloss”, either one is applicable), or even “Magnetized”. I think it’s these two songs that make me feel like Schmilco is not as unified as most Wilco albums, since the rest of the record flows quite well.
All in all, Schmilco is far from Wilco’s finest work, but I don’t think anyone is expecting that these days. The album is still one with a lot of value, and one that I have been able to listen to over and over again without tiring. Give it a spin, anything that Wilco touches is worth hearing.