Cruel Country by Wilco album review by Greg Walker. The Chicago band's full-length is now available via Nonesuch/dBpm Records

8.8

Wilco

Cruel Country

It’s been a rough couple of years in America. With racial tension, with political wars, with a pandemic that has taken the lives of millions of people. Every new thing, like the shooting in Uvalde, it seems like we’ve hit our breaking point as a nation. And the hits just keep on coming. Arcade Fire even said in their latest record that it’s the “end of the American experiment.” That’s from the vantage point of Canada, but the truth is, Americans are even more convinced of that than the neighbors of the world looking on in pity or judgment.

The new Wilco album, Cruel Country, a whopping 21 tracks, is just what America needs right now. Like the title song sings, “I love my country like a little boy / Red, white, and blue // I love my country stupid and cruel / Red, white, and blue.” Because of the media, perhaps, because it’s human nature, definitely, we are full of hate, because there are problems in our country. Some people don’t want to teach kids about our racial history, and that is just creating a schism of hate and violence, all over again. And that is just one of a couple dozen issues that is dividing our nation and stirring up strife.

In an album that is understated musically, but that is always deeply resonant, lyrically, Jeff Tweedy and company attempt to heal the nation’s wounds and inject a little understanding into the judgment. Lead single, “Tired Of Taking It Out On You,” Jeff Tweedy says is a reminder to himself, when he’s tired, not to be an asshole. But it’s as much a reminder to the people on both sides of the political spectrum, on either side of any messy situation. “Darkness is cheap,” Tweedy sings on the horn-enhanced song of the same name.

He attempts in this album to inject some light into the equation, though the songs are some of the least light-hearted that Tweedy has penned in his generation-spanning career. We’re all feeling the weight. But Tweedy’s reminder to us is, first, that we’re not the only nation to be suffering (“In a hurricane’s eye / People get by / Living their lives / All across the world”), and second, the universe is actually a pretty beautiful place to be (“The universe / Could be worse / It’s the only place / There is to be”). It might not have been his intention, but this collection of songs act as a persuasive argument for his listeners NOT to emigrate from America, a country in shambles.

As heavy as it is, it’s as clever an album as any Wilco album before it. Grammy worthy, I’d say. He does his magic with language, rhyming words like “sacraments” and “subtle hints”, “just by chance” and “ambulance”, “forget” and “continent.” For the long-time Wilco fans, one of the album highlights is the eight minute “Many Worlds,” which recalls their old hit, “Misunderstood,” with its piano intro and rocking conclusion, but in reverse. Though who’s to say, what will become the new live staple from this album: there are plenty to choose from.

“But baby being blue / When it comes to me and you / It’s always on the menu / So sit down,” Tweedy sings on perhaps the most “country” song on the album. “Because I’m gonna be the only one / Falling apart right now.” Tweedy does what he does best and injects a poetic sense of compassion into this album, so that we stop pointing our fingers for a moment, so that we think about the heavy load that this life is for everyone. And take turns, meet somewhere in the middle, perhaps. Something we all need to here.

“It takes a lifetime to find / A life like the life you had in mind / Now you’re mine,” Tweedy sings towards the end of the album. One of the reasons that I take him so seriously when he sings is because he has built a life in the midst of the mess that is something almost anyone could say is a success. And he’s pleading with us, in song, to stick it out. The album is twenty one songs, but it’s only an hour and fifteen minutes. I plead with you to stick it out. And if you’re thinking of leaving this “cruel country,” maybe you’ll have second thoughts, after listening to this album by a national treasure. “There isn’t any point in being free / When there’s nowhere else / You’d rather be.”

Order Cruel Country by Wilco HERE