Yankee Hotel Foxtrot may have been the best and worst thing to happen to Wilco. Worst because it invited a backlash among fans who balked at Jeff Tweedy, one of roots-rock's première tunesmiths, pulling his songs apart in a fit of inexpressible irritation. And best because Tweedy almost immediately rejected that style of album-making. While the songwriting on A Ghost Is Born and the new Sky Blue Sky remains restless and occasionally experimental, the songs themselves are much less fussy, and more of the moment. Wilco's most recent two albums—or three, counting the live set Kicking Television—are among the best of this era. They're inventive, exciting, rich, and likeably human.
Sky Blue Sky starts with one of Wilco's most gorgeous songs, "Either Way," which sports a classic lilting melody, slightly truncated and well-supported by wobbly organ and strings. Like a lot of the songs on this record, "Either Way" circles gently and never fully lands. But that isn't a complaint. Songs like "Impossible Germany" and "Side With The Seeds" build quickly from lovely, breezy openings to rough-hewn jams, spotlighting loose guitar interplay and chunky rhythms. Again and again, the band starts a song that sounds like it could be a new pop-folk standard, then abandons it after a minute or two to go rooting around in the soil.
It's a testament to Tweedy's intuitive performing skills that this approach never gets too frustrating. It helps that the songs are more relatable than tense. (Though the lonesome country-soul lament "Hate It Here" is both.) When Wilco rocks, it goes full-out, as deep in the pocket as six alt-rock-addled boys can go. And between the loud, jammy interludes, Tweedy coos sweet words of regret and reconciliation, poignant but never pat. Even the soft rock sheen of "Leave Me (Like You Found Me)" sports thin cracks, letting in fresh air. That's the way Sky Blue Sky goes. It's an album of shiny surfaces and great depths.