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From The Vault: Wilco - “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2002)


Wilco will forever be one of those bands from which I pick and choose which songs ride best in my back pocket, with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot being another. That being said, others have suggested that the album is nothing short of complex, dangerously catchy, provocative and lyrically sophisticated, along with being both noisy and oddly serene … if not a downright masterpiece, which to my way of thinking is a lot to live up to, offering zero room for any faults whatsoever. 

I on the other hand, do not think that the album is all that majestic, quite good yes, yet hardly able to live up to the hype, though if one remembers what the airwaves were full of in 2002, it’s rather easy to understand the impression this record had on listeners across the spectrum, from an album that was perhaps the most talked about event of the year. But, and again there’s always a but … it’s important to be able to separate the social construct of the album, it’s free delivery over the internet, the radical departure of the band from their record label, and the music held within these grooves.

In essence the record brings forth a reality of provocative moving psychedelic earthy iridescent tracks, a mix of alternative rocking country inspired songs regarding the the survival of both a blown mind and a broken heart. Yes, Wilco do manage to create a sonic atmosphere where things sound as if they’re falling apart and then coming back together again, vividly, filled with chaos, remorse and a great deal of story telling.

In the same breath I could easily say that Tweedy and company have been taking a sidestep from their alternative county orthodoxy for a while now, and never more so than here with the their cryptic power pop influences that eerily teeter this way and that, yet seem rooted in solid ground. If anything Yankee Hotel Foxtrot does not take place in front of you, it’s more that it’s happening in the rearview mirror, as if you’ve passed through this event quickly and come to embrace it from two vantage points, as if to live in the present with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot might just shatter your tentative hold on life. While the music might unrecognizably be drawn from previous outings, Tweedy’s unbalanced and surreal demons are all over this record, often causing me to wonder why he’s not sitting alone in the dark with a needle and a spoon full time, giving up on life, perpetually searching for the next fast-food joint. Though (laughing), there’s a kind of universal honesty found in these lyrics that draw you in until you recognized them as being part of you.

Others have tried and failed, while Wilco manage to have created a record that builds, it’s a process, where anyone of these tracks could easily lead into any other, spiraling skyward, deconstructing, falling in on itself, and then by sheer force of will, re-establishing itself with a physical presence. To this day I’m not sure how structurally sound the layering is on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, that being said, it’s still standing due to the fact that the album is one designed to age, where most people dismissed or embraced the album as interesting, then at some point found that they couldn’t live without it, as it sonically changed the conceptual nature of the musical landscape we were living in.

This is a record on which Wilco shed their skin, and to this day I don’t believe they been able to find anything suitable to wear full-time, where if you’re a fan of the documentary “Ashes Of American Flags,” released a few years later, you’ll better understand the intensity and the magnitude of the sound Wilco was living in and need to excise … where in retrospect, I think that tour just about blew the doors off of everyone, including the band, as Jeff seems a bit more lo-fi now.

Of course from there I could say that Wilco (Jeff Tweedy) have perfected their own sense of insecurity on this ultimate hipster record in an effort to manipulate, using self deprecation and vulnerability to prey upon the needs of the masses and thus feeding their own egos, while at other times lyrically sounding (“I am trying to break your heart, But still I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy …”) sophomorically vengeful, as did Kerouac, Salinger and Bukowski, all whom were idyllically amoral, without the skills necessary to love and be loved by even themselves, that the album has been infused with resentment, compromised by its dedication to barriers and the refusal to break through them.

If anything Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will go down as a cultural artifact, and all you have to do is listen to the lyrics to understand the nature of Wilco’s being.

*** The Fun Facts: Chicagoans can recognize the identical towers featured on the album cover, they’ve been know by different names, there’s the original official title, ‘Marina City’, and then there’s the colloquial ‘Corn Cob Towers’, though since 2001 they’ve been known as ‘The Wilco Towers’. The buildings housed the radio station WCFL, along with the Chicago Tribune.

As to the album’s title: The album was named after a series of letters in the phonetic alphabet that Tweedy had heard on the Irdial box set The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations. On the fourth track of the album, a woman repeats the words “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” numerous times; a clip from this Numbers Station transmission was placed in the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot song “Poor Places”. Irdial sued Wilco for copyright infringement, and a settlement was reached out of court.

On a side note: The band was tempted to keep the Uncle Tupelo name, but ultimately decided to rename the band. The group named itself ‘Wilco’ after the military and commercial aviation radio voice abbreviation for ‘will comply’, a choice which Tweedy has called “A fairly ironic choice for a rock band to name themselves.”

- Jenell Kesler
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