Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – Classic Music Review
Memories of the months that followed 9/11 are pretty much a blur for me. The overwhelming gestalt I remember was the constant barrage of “breaking news,” nearly all of it scary speculation about the horrors Al Qaeda had in store for us. As a native San Franciscan, I was particularly upset to learn that the Golden Gate Bridge was one of their targets, a piece of news that solidified my ardent loathing of psychopathic religious fundamentalists. Like nearly everyone else in the country, I was angry, bitter and ached for all the innocent people who lost their lives because they happened to show up for work that day.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out a week after 9/11 and I couldn’t have cared less.
When I returned to the dorms after the Christmas break, the vibes were still pretty weird, but people had figured out different ways to cope with the new reality. My coping strategy involved resuming my lifelong quest to develop my erotic skill set, so I spent all my available time fucking, sucking and then fucking some more. Whether it had to do with the emotional after-effects of 9/11 or my forever-raging hormones, I was fairly indiscriminate and didn’t make particularly great choices when it came to selecting fuck partners.
One of those questionable choices was a guy who happened to be an avid Wilco fan and played Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for me in its entirety one night after we’d cooled the throes of passion. My response was two-fold: I didn’t think much of the album and decided that the guy’s sexual prowess didn’t deserve an encore. Neither he nor Jeff Tweedy twiddled my diddle all that much.
Fast-forward twenty years later to my decision to re-engage with the blog. One of the major motivators behind that decision was the dearth of 21st-century reviews. Other than Radiohead and my disappointing experience reviewing new releases, I really hadn’t done all that much with the music of the new millennium. I will confess to a general opinion that 21st-century music is boring, commercialized, over-produced and unoriginal, and that rock in particular has sunk to new lows. I’m also at something of a disadvantage in that I absolutely loathe rap and hip-hop, by far the most popular forms of music in this century.
I thought to myself, “Well, it can’t be all bad. Maybe I’m missing something.” Sure enough, I reconnected with The National and found the experience of reviewing The Boxer absolutely delightful. I will confess that The National had a leg up on Wilco because when I first heard them back in the day, I loved both the rhythm section and Matt Berninger’s deep baritone. As for Wilco, I really liked the drummer but didn’t exactly fall in love with Jeff Tweedy’s vocals.
At this point the little voice inside my head whispered, “Well, if you can get over Lou Reed’s hit-and-mostly miss vocal stylings, you can at least give Jeff Tweedy a shot at redemption,” so I shouldered on. As my regular readers know, I do a ton of research before putting fingers to keyboard, so I began by reading the numerous reviews that hailed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as a modern masterpiece. The one critic of note who panned the album was arch-enemy Robert Christgau, and the only time I remembered being in sync with Christgau was with The New York Dolls. Score one for Wilco.
Then I watched the also highly-acclaimed documentary of the album, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, which turned out to be a near-total bore—but since I considered Get Back a complete yawner, I generously gave Wilco a pass. What saved the film from being a total waste of time were two important takeaways. One: the full band scenes confirmed that Wilco had the chops. Two: Tweedy and his mates employed a constructive-deconstructive approach to songwriting, focusing first on building a song with solid bones, then rearranging and enhancing the various pieces to create something new and different—sort of like a cubist approach to music. While cubism didn’t always work out for Picasso or Braque, I liked both the concept and the dedication behind the concept.
Now completely motivated and full of my usual spit-and-vinegar but willing to switch to strawberries and cream if things go their way, I’m ready to get on with the review of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
The first time you listen to the opening track, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” you may immediately conclude it’s a nothingburger that creeps along for what feels like ages. The simple melody sounds like it was written on one of those tiny, colorful xylophones designed for children; Jeff Tweedy sounds half-asleep, half-drunk or both as he meanders through a meaningless jumble of lyrics; and the bits of background noise sound random and pointless.
And that’s why first impressions suck. Once you listen to the song two or three times, you begin to appreciate the impressive depth of the composition—and the justification for Jeff Tweedy’s vocal approach.
The introduction to the song is a melange of electronic noise, unfinished musical phrases, piano bits and hesitation-loaded drum riffs—it feels like the song is having a hard time reaching a state of coherence. When the band finally lands on something solid just before the first verse, we realize that the alleged messiness of the opening passage forms the perfect introduction to the lead character in our story—a lost soul whose life is falling apart due to a combination of modern alienation, a failed relationship and his chosen method for dealing with the resulting pain: old demon alcohol.
I am an American aquarium drinker
I assassin down the avenue
I’m hiding out in the big city blinking
What was I thinking when I let go of you?
The narrator is obviously a binge drinker given to driving while drunk and the pain he’s trying to drown in alcohol results from feeling lost and alone in the big city. Like many alcoholics, he’s full of regrets; as is true with many alcoholics, we can’t assume that those regrets are genuine. His state of mind is echoed in the music—a guy like this wouldn’t be capable of anything beyond a simple melody and his slurry diction is a natural consequence of hitting the bottle too hard. The jumbled syntax completes the picture of a man struggling to make sense of things that don’t make sense. He has no idea why he let go of someone he loved—or so it seems.
It’s interesting that he identifies himself as an American aquarium drinker. Some folks have pointed out the initials of the two-word adjective form “A.A.” but I think that’s a “Lucy in the Sky in Diamonds”-type accident. Tweedy did tell Rolling Stone that “some of the focus on that record was being introspective about America,” so I think the insertion of the word “American” represents the first link in that chain.
The passages between the verses become a bit more settled while continuing to echo the disorientation of the intro. Glenn Kotche’s drum riffs are somewhat reminiscent of Ringo’s work in “Rain,” marked by offbeat snare attacks that command your attention and enhance the drama. The electronic noise becomes more of a grind, the piano alternates between ironic light-heartedness and assertive chords, and bursts of dissonance fill the air. In the second verse, the narrator expresses his exhaustion with constant bickering and comes up with a tactic employed by many couples throughout history—let’s fuck our way out of this mess. The woman apparently finds the suggestion ridiculous; he pretends to take the rejection in stride, then beats himself up for doing so:
Let’s forget about the tongue-tied lightning
Let’s undress just like cross-eyed strangers
This is not a joke, so please stop smiling
What was I thinking when I said it didn’t hurt?
Despite his sensitivity to rejection, the narrator appears to yearn for a deeper attachment, but both parties know that his drinking problem is getting in the way:
I want to glide through those brown eyes dreaming
Take you from the inside, baby, hold on tight
You were so right when you said I’ve been drinking
What was I thinking when we said goodnight?
The next two verses make it clear that the narrator is stuck in a pull-push loop: he wants her but he knows he’s fucked up so he pushes her away. He longs for the comforting presence of a body next to his in the dark of night until it hits him that the presence of another in one’s life always complicates things. He likens the complications she brings to the table to the domino that initiates the fall of all the other dominoes in his life, and he’s simply not ready to deal with all that. She’s still tending to hurts from past relationships (the band-aid); he interprets her stance as a subtle accusation that he’s “trying to score” (“touchdowns”). The fourth and fifth verses make it clear that this has been an on-off relationship, but he blames himself for letting her back in and making both their lives miserable:
I want to hold you in the Bible black pre-dawn
You’re quite a quiet domino, bury me now
Take off your band-aid, ’cause I don’t believe in touchdowns
What was I thinking when we said hello?
I always thought that if I held you tightly
You would always love me like you did back then
Then I fell asleep in the city kept blinking
What was I thinking when I let you back in?
The drums disappear at this point, leaving only a background of dissonant noise as the narrator finally utters something completely truthful for a change:
I am trying to break your heart
I am trying to break your heart
But still I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy
I am trying to break your heart
This isn’t sadism; he’s trying to push her away because he knows he’s bad news. An extended musical passage follows that confession, opening with a relatively straight path of chord affirmation and steady rhythm before devolving into cacophony and grind. The narrator re-appears, his voice raised a full octave and his tone transformed from a mumble to something close to agony. What we learn is he hasn’t learned a damn thing—he may have toned down his drinking from aquariums to dixie cups, but he remains a destructive force (to both self and other) and still can’t let go of the girl:
Disposable Dixie cup drinker
I assassin down the avenue
I’ve been hiding out in the big city blinking
What was I thinking when I let go of you?
Sorry folks, but happy endings are relatively rare in real life, and I’ve always believed it’s better to accept reality than wish things were different. While it may seem like an odd choice for an opening track, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is a fine piece of work and delivers an emphatic message that Wilco was serious about creating serious music.
One additional note regarding this interpretation and those that follow. While I’m fully aware that Jeff Tweedy has struggled with migraines, mental health issues and various addictions, I think it’s highly unfair to interpret his music solely through the lens of his personal struggles. His experiences have certainly informed his work, but as demonstrated here and in the other songs on the album, he managed to translate his personal experiences into universal messages about the human condition. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” isn’t about Jeff Tweedy; it’s about all of us who have struggled with truth-telling, depression and alienation, whatever the cause.
If you’ve never heard Wilco, “Kamera” might serve as a more palatable introduction to the band with its pleasant melody, toe-tapping beat and recognizable refrain (“No, it’s not okay”). The vocals are excellent, featuring a two-octave unison lead vocal and a call-and-response pattern in the last verse. I could have done without the superfluous boing-boing buzz towards the end of the second verse, but generally, the background soundscape supports the sweet melancholy of the song. The lyrics continue the themes of alienation, self-and-other deception and the yearning for a genuine connection established in the opening track but introduce a new metaphor of “life as war” that will be explored in depth later in the album:
I smashed a camera, I wanna know why
To my eye, deciding
Which lies that I have been hiding
Which echoes belong
I’m counting on
A heart I know by heart
To walk me through this war
With memories distort
Phone my family, tell them I’m lost on the sidewalk
No, it’s not okay
The “No, it’s not okay” refrain may seem like a throwaway line, but in the context of the song, it captures the essence of all three themes noted above. The fact that we spend a good chunk of our lives pretending everything is okay and communicating that pretense to those around us is a sure sign of alienation and a classic example of self-and-other deception. In contrast, saying “Fuck no, it’s not okay” opens the door to the possibility of engaging in honest dialogue about how I’m really feeling. Most people don’t want to hear that because they’re locked into pretense and expect everyone else to act in kind to maintain the façade demanded by civilized society.
Human beings are fucking idiots!
I’ve read various interpretations of “Radio Cure” ranging from a cancer diagnosis to some kind of connection with a Robert Frost poem, but my sense is that the song is about separation from one’s beloved due to the peripatetic existence of the traveling musician. Though the subject matter has been covered by dozens of rock troubadours in songs like Jim Capaldi’s “Rock and Roll Stew” and the Jagger-Richards composition “Going Home,” Tweedy’s take feels more personal because he presents the story through his side of a conversation with his missing partner and shares his struggles with her (“Cheer up honey, I hope you can/There is something wrong with me”). The lyrics do become somewhat cryptic as the song proceeds, but the repetition of “Oh, distance has no way of making love understandable” before a final “Cheer up honey” emphasizes the vital importance and superior quality of face-to-face communication, especially in an intimate relationship. Up until the fade, the music contrasts brooding electronica and static with steady kick beats and open-tuned thumb-and-finger-picked acoustic guitar with loose chording that communicate anxiety and disconnection. When the dark music transforms into something more conventional for the repeated line, I feel a touch of disappointment in the discontinuity—the darker background was far more suited to the mood expressed in the lyrics.
Well, I promised you we’d get to the “life as war” theme somewhere down the road and here we are! If you were worried that you might have trouble finding it, you can pack your troubles in your old kit bag because Wilco made damned sure you knew exactly where you landed in the first eight lines:
It’s a war on war
It’s a war on war
It’s a war on war
It’s a war on war
It’s a war on war
It’s a war on war
It’s a war on war
It’s a war on war
Sorry guys, but I really think four was the magic number here, and while I have your attention, I really resent the intrusion of irrelevant noise in the middle of a bright and energetic stereo acoustic guitar passage . . . and the noise in the instrumental bridge. This is a song with a simple, coherent and insightful message, and acoustic guitar, bass and drums were really all you needed to get it across. This is one case where the cubist approach didn’t work—the synth is a completely unnecessary distraction.
The message is one that Peter Koestenbaum relayed back in the early 70s in The Vitality of Death. The basic premise of the book is that the specter of certain death can serve as the organizing principle of life, for when you face and accept the inevitability of death, you can focus your efforts on living a meaningful life instead of cowering in fear of judgment day. Jeff Tweedy is a bit more succinct:
You have to lose
You have to learn how to die
If you want to want to be alive
In discussing the song with Crud Magazine, Tweedy explained the message in practical terms: “I think somehow you need to get to a certain point in your life where the notion of failure is absurd.” I really wished he had found a way to squeeze that line into the lyrics—I would give anything to arrive at that divine state.
I’m kind of divided as to whether Christians would interpret the title “Jesus, Etc.” as dismissive of their icon or a message to the effect that “the only thing that’s important is Jesus, and everything else is ‘etc.'” The correct answer is C: None of the Above. The first line in the song is “Jesus, don’t cry” as in “there’s no need for tears,” and since Tweedy couldn’t come up with anything better, the song kept the working title “Jesus, etc.”
Such a beautiful song deserved a better fate. “Jesus, etc” is a sophisticated love song presented as one-half of a conversation between two lovers struggling with insecurity, self-worth and the endless anxiety that pervades modern life.
We only hear the narrator’s side of the conversation, but it’s obvious that his partner is in desperate need of empathy and understanding:
Jesus, don’t cry
You can rely on me, honey
You can combine anything you want
I take that last line to mean, “You have no obligation to follow any rules, dogma or straight lines; you have the right to be yourself.” The next verse affirms the narrator’s complete support for her self-realization while giving us a glimpse into the partner’s imaginative mind:
I’ll be around
You were right about the stars
Each one is a setting sun
Most of us look up at the sky, see white dots blinking and move on. She imagines worlds surrounding those white dots, and by implication, people on those worlds enjoying the colors of sunset. If she shared such a vision with the average person, they’d probably identify her as a flake and maybe a druggie hooked on mushrooms.
In contrast to her fresh perspective on the skies and stars, we are immediately faced with the jarring juxtaposition of people trapped in cold concrete structures trying to earn a living that doesn’t seem to be worth living:
Tall building shake
Voices escape singing sad, sad songs
Tuned to chords, strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around
We can assume that her current life involves a day job in one of those buildings, listening all day to the sad, sad songs of colleagues in equally meaningless jobs, their bitter melodies throwing her off track and out of touch with her true self. Later in the song we’re presented with the image of “Skyscrapers are scraping together,” indicating that despite the damage to collective mental health, the fetish for constant economic growth and the doctrine of profits over people guarantee that bigger will always equal better in America (unless there’s a worldwide pandemic combined with a labor shortage and workers finally get some leverage to tell the bosses, “Take your office and shove it”).
Fortunately, there is a healing balm for the existential pain of modern existence:
Our love is all we have
Our love is all of God’s money
Everyone is a burning sun
But alas, she still has to pay the bills, so she sucks it up and resorts to the classic nerve-calmer:
Skyscrapers are scraping together
Your voice is smoking
Last cigarettes are all you can get
Turning your orbit around
The beauty of the song goes far beyond the sweet melancholy of the lyrics. The string arrangement created by Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt is absolutely gorgeous, combining tones and smoothness reminiscent of Stéphane Grappelli’s work on Django Reinhardt’s moodier pieces with some nice pizzicato touches. Stirratt also does a splendid job on the bass in perfect sync with Glenn Kotche’s subtle and steady drum work.
A surprising number of people have connected the song to 9/11, despite the previously-noted release date. Some have even pointed to the “twin towers” on the cover as a premonition of sorts; we can safely file that suggestion in the folder marked “Paul is dead.” Jeff Tweedy may be a great songwriter, but he isn’t psychic, and sociopathic terrorists were the furthest thing from his mind when he wrote this song. So why the connection? One possible explanation comes from Tweedy himself, so here’s the rest of the “introspective about America” quote cited above:
There were a lot of eerie echoes of 9/11 that I heard on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, maybe because some of the focus on that record was being introspective about America. I understood how people could hear that in it. The thing that’s much weirder for me is seeing it referred to as a record written about 9/11, which blows my mind — the album was ready to go by then. I don’t know what else to say about it other than I’m obviously very, very honored if anybody found any kind of consolation in that record, at that time or now.
The Wilco band bio Wilco: Learning How to Die mentions that Jeff Tweedy carried a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer everywhere he went for eight years, which superficially explains why he paraphrases Miller in “Ashes of American Flags.” I understand his admiration. While most people associate Miller with the graphic erotic imagery that earned the novel a ban in the home of the free but not very brave, few authors have so forcefully and insightfully identified the bullshit that pervades modern civilization as well as Henry Miller. While Jeff Tweedy doesn’t display Miller’s boisterousness, many of the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot find him trying to work his way through similar bullshit in the 21st Century.
The music to the song runs at a slow and steady dirge-like pace, piano and guitar (acoustic and electric) supported by various electronic instruments and gadgets. Sometimes the background threatens to wash over Tweedy’s vocal, but for the most part, his soft voice manages to break through in the center of the mix. That combination gives the piece a feeling of “surroundedness,” as if the singer is struggling to be heard through the cacophony of existence:
The cash machine is blue and green
For a hundred in twenties and a small service fee
I could spend three dollars and sixty-three cents
On Diet Coca-Cola and unlit cigarettes
I wonder why we listen to poets when nobody gives a fuck
How hot and sorrowful, this machine begs for luck
All my lies are always wishes
I know I would die if I could come back new
Despite the Henry Miller inclusions and the tantalizing couplet “I would like to salute/The ashes of American flags,” the lyrics fall far short of an indictment of American culture as implied in the title and fail to connect the narrator’s troubles with the troubles in his country of origin. The content certainly doesn’t jive with what Tweedy said in an interview with Mojo Magazine in December 2013 (from Songfacts):
Tweedy told Mojo magazine December 2013 there was a strong narrative arc going throughout the album, a unifying philosophy boosted based on reflection on America. He explained: “Up until that point I’d been very negative towards patriotism or feelings of nationality. But traveling around the world, I was starting to feel a deeper understanding that my country has shaped me and it is something that can be defined for yourself without it being a caricature. In other words, it was home.”
Though I left America and renounced my citizenship, a part of me will always be American, so I get where Tweedy is coming from (though I absolutely do NOT consider America my home). I think “Ashes of American Flags” would have been a much stronger piece if Tweedy had made a stronger connection between “home” and his obvious despair.
The album takes a sharp turn to the light-and-lively for the next three tracks. “Heavy Metal Drummer” is a nostalgic rocker that pays homage to the soundtrack of Gen X teenage years. You can replace “heavy metal bands” with “classic rock,” “disco” or “Britpop” if you insist and feel the warm glow that comes from treasured memories of wayward youth. Though the girl in the song falls in love with the drummer . . . er, hold on . . . multiple drummers, I fell in love with John Stirratt’s nimble and explosive bass part, which is as close to Entwistle-level-quality as I’ve ever heard. It’s followed by the oddly popular “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” a garden-variety love song “enhanced” by irritating noise and a buzzy guitar tone to disguise its fundamentally late-stage-McCartney genes. “Pot Kettle Black” is a bouncy little number with a melody that begs the question, “Haven’t I heard this somewhere before?” Tweedy’s point seems to be that because he’s admitted his shortcomings, he deserves brownie points for not pointing out the flaws in others . . . but then he points them out anyway (“You’re tied in a knot”). Despite the song’s defects, it’s still a rather pleasant tune that highlights the excellence of the Stirratt-Kotche rhythm section.
“Poor People” opens with the sound of shortwave radio and fades to the voice of a woman repeating words from the NATO phonetic alphabet: “Yankee . . . hotel . . . foxtrot.” In between is a jumble of lyrics that shift from third to first-person and has all the earmarks of a coded message. The second verse does appear to be autobiographical, given the echoes of “Ashes of American Flags” (“There’s bourbon on the breath/of the singer you love so much/he takes all of his words from the books/that you don’t read anyway”). I am 99.9% sure that the indifference to poor people in hot climates is a third-person perspective from an American who loathes “shithole countries,” but I couldn’t figure out how all the pieces fit together.
I labored over this coded transmission for days until it finally dawned on me that the seemingly random episodes/events/descriptions of mental states described in the song are samples of “life’s background noise” emanating from self and surroundings that trigger the strange combination of anxiety and ennui that marks the modern psyche. Based on that perspective, the repeated line, “And I really want to see you tonight” represents the overarching desire to connect with someone real for a change.
While the lyrics are a handful, there’s no doubt about the excellence of the build in this song, a gradual increase in complexity and texture that ends in a barrage of rising tension with that voice insistently repeating “Yankee . . . hotel . . . foxtrot.” The fade feels like a sonic re-enactment of the fears and anxieties of the billions of people living in our insecure world.
Because that grand finale is somewhat reminiscent of the build at the end of “A Day in the Life,” it might have made for a killer album-ender, but I’m more than satisfied with the decision to wrap things up on a different note.
“Reservation” ties the themes of alienation, deception and the search for genuine intimacy together in a beautiful song that celebrates the most effective choice we can make to ease our fears and anxieties: the choice to share our vulnerabilities with another human being. To admit your shortcomings to another person always feels like a risky move, and yes, there are people in the world who will exploit your vulnerabilities, but taking the risk is a far better option than allowing the existential pain of living a façade to slowly destroy your spirit. The simple act of being real with another person is an affirmative act of self-healing, regardless of their reaction.
How can I convince you it’s me I don’t like
And not be so indifferent to the look in your eyes
When I’ve always been distant
And I’ve always told lies for love
I’m bound by these choices so hard to make
I’m bound by the feeling so easy to fake
None of this is real enough to take me from you
Oh I’ve got reservations
About so many things
But not about you
I know this isn’t what you were wanting me to say
How can I get closer and be further away
From the truth that proves it’s beautiful to lie
I’ve got reservations
About so many things
But not about you . . .
Waiting for us at the end of the song proper is an extended musical conclusion, a melancholy collection of sound and texture that allows the listener a moment of reflection—the perfect way to end an album that evokes so many feelings and gives us so much to think about.
The quibbles I have with the album (and I always have quibbles) pale in comparison to the more frequent moments when Jeff and the boys are on top of their game. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an endlessly fascinating exploration of the human condition at the turn of the millennium marked by superb songwriting, daring arrangements and solid musicianship.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will forever be associated with two unrelated events. The first was the incredible rejection of the album by the suits at Reprise and the refusal of the band and their manager to accept that verdict. Reprise was at least gracious enough to give Wilco the rights to the album at no cost, enabling the band to stream the new album from their website in relatively short order on September 18, 2011.
The other unrelated event was 9/11. As noted previously, many people drew comfort from the album in the aftermath of that horrible day despite the lack of any tangible connection between the terrorist attack and the music. I can fully understand why people were drawn to that particular album at that particular time, and the reason goes far beyond Jeff’s “introspective” about America comment.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot forged a deep connection between artist and audience because Jeff Tweedy had the courage to share his vulnerabilities with us at a time when we were all feeling vulnerable.