Stylistically, Wilco has ranged over the years from stripped-down, mellow guitar-pop to music more heavily orchestrated and experimental, but the real divide in Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting tends to be structural. Sometimes the band gravitates to simple songs that convey straightforward ideas in a solid verse-chorus-verse frame; and sometimes Wilco goes more esoteric, with oddball lyrics and beguilingly sketchy arrangements. On the surface, Wilco (The Album) could be described as Wilco in meat-and-potatoes rock ’n’ roll mode, halfway between the tuneful excess of Summerteeth and the low-key classicism of Sky Blue Sky. But structurally, the album is cleanly cleaved between the sing-along Wilco and the freeform Wilco. And when the former begins to overcome the latter, the album suffers.
After the likeably goofy opener “Wilco (The Song),” Wilco (The Album) hits three straight songs that present Tweedy and company at their best, eschewing conventional choruses in favor of an unlikely assortment of guitar solos, rhythmic shifts, and hooky phrases that seem to have been pulled together by some ineffable force. But halfway through the record—starting with the not-quite-rousing rocker “You Never Know”—the exploratory side of Wilco starts to give way to more workmanlike material. The band is still good enough to put across (The Album)’s later songs, thanks to a buzzy ’70s sound that nods to George Harrison here, John Lennon there, and Tom Petty all over the place. But the “reaching for something indescribable” feeling of songs like “Deeper Down” and “One Wing” is sorely lacking amid the pat familiarity of “I’ll Fight” and “Everlasting Everything.” The back half of Wilco (The Album) is too sing-song-y, too underdeveloped, too “good enough.” This band is capable of so much more.