Album Review – Wilco’s “Cruel Country”

Spoiler alert: This album is not country. And despite all the rhetoric from Jeff Tweedy and others leading up to the release about how this would be a return to Wilco’s Uncle Tupelo alt-country roots, despite what the title might allude to, and even despite the lead single from the album that sounded pretty darn country to most of us, any country music on this album is the exception, not the rule.

And no, this is not to instigate the tired ol’ argument about what is country, and what isn’t. It’s also not a commentary on the music itself. And as a default, you probably shouldn’t even expect a Wilco album to be country at this point. This observance just happens to be the most remarkable takeaway from an album that we were told would be country, and had many getting their hopes up, whether they were older Wilco or Uncle Tupelo fans who enjoyed that era of alt-country before it all became “Americana,” or country fans who cherish their copies of No Depression, and maybe Yankee Hotel Foxtrot when they’re feeling adventurous.

Instead, Cruel Country is very much a late-career Wilco album, a Jeff Tweedy album, and when you’re expectations are recalibrated to this reality of things, you can actually appreciate this album for what it is, and be grateful for the three or four songs on the album that do happen to be country, along with some of the other top tracks on what is a fairly dense and involved 21-track release.

Jeff Tweedy deserves to be considered as an American music legend right beside some of your favorite country music greats, even if he stands slightly askew of them in a country adjacent category. If not for Uncle Tupelo, we may not have an entire realm of music they helped inspire, including a large share of the artists regularly featured on a site like Saving Country Music. When Jay Fararr left Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy formed Wilco from the remnants, even if the only one left from the original lineup at this point is bassist John Stirratt.

Wilco at its best has always complimented Jeff Tweedy’s nuanced and involved writing, along with his soft-spoken singing approach. At its worst, it exposes it. You get doses of both on Cruel Country. Along with not being especially country, the album also struggles to settle on a cohesive theme, though it does start off with one, and one also embodied by “country,” though in reference to a nation as opposed to a genre.

The title track is rather expressive about its disillusion with the American ideal. “I love my country, stupid and cruel,” Tweedy sings on top of music that could have been sampled straight from The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, trotting hoof effects and all. The next song “Hints” seems to poke holes in America’s Manifest Destiny, and the folly of being inflexible in one’s ideals, set to a more modern folk and muted musical accompaniment that sets an appropriate mood.

But just like the idea of making a country record, Cruel Country meanders from there. Those looking for the other more country tracks that find the other material too tedious can fast forward to “Falling Apart (Right Now),” endearing itself with some Everly Brothers jangle vibes mixed with super twangy and phased guitar indicative of early Waylon, and writing not so esoteric that it can’t be enjoyed by everyone.

“A Lifetime to Find” once again reignites those Byrds and Gram Parsons vibes that very much helped give birth to alt-country. Some may count “Hearts Hard to Find” as a country track too, maybe in a Glen Campbell meets Bread kind of way, with some further thought-provoking lyrics.

But ultimately, the country tracks are the outliers here—novelties interspersed in mostly soft folk music with minimalist instrumentation that sometimes frustratingly under-utilizes the other members of Wilco, who prove with the country stuff to be quite capable of making compelling and expressive music.

With Jeff Tweedy though, it’s all about the song. Alt-country wasn’t just about adding a rock edge to country like early Steve Earle, or the Old 97’s, or Reckless Kelly. Alt-country was also about songs that were too good for country radio, and often, voices that were too bad for it. When it was released in 2002, the words of Wilco’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” didn’t just help christen the band American Aquarium, they opened up new possibilities for how roots musicians could approach writing a song.

Wilco adds some similar selections to that legacy on Cruel Country. “Story To Tell” is a good example of how Tweedy can use somewhat bizarre scenarios on the surface to tell stories that are strangely comforting and apt to the audience, whether it’s drinking from aquariums, or cutting off your arm and sewing back on wrong, as music unafraid of being pinned as inspired by John Lennon offers a bit of nostalgia to the listener. The mostly acoustic “The Universe” also stands out on Cruel Country.

Still, at least as a country music fan, you can’t help but be a little frustrated by the bait and switch here, which seems to be happening often lately. It’s fashionable to say you’ve released a country album, even if you haven’t, where before in alt-country and Americana circles, the opposite was the case. It makes for a good narrative, but it’s also a missed opportunity.

You can tell a country fan that Uncle Tupelo and at least the early stuff from Wilco is worth their time. But Wilco could have built a bridge, a gateway, a wormhole back to that early alt-country era that would have naturally fostered discovery. With the country tracks on the album, Wilco proves it was possible, and that they’re clearly capable. But it just comprises so little of the material on this album. And yes, even though it feels like stock to say about a 21-song album, the tracks definitely could have been culled down, with some of the songs being hard to follow Jeff Tweedy’s train of thought, and sometimes making noise just to make noise.

Wilco’s relationship with country has always been complicated, and it remains so with this album. Is Jeff Tweedy trying to assert that all of this is country, to get us to ponder some deeper definition? Maybe, but ultimately Cruel Country should just be regarded as music. Sometimes the whole genre argument is wholly inappropriate. And even though Wilco is the one who instigated it in this case, it feels inappropriate here. Just listen to the music. It’s not country, it’s Wilco.

7.3/10

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