Just last year Wilco released Star Wars, a great, experimental rock album filled with gnarly guitars and edgy songs. Their follow-up, Schmilco, is a quieter record that presents its own challenges. Beneath its calm surface are songs about not quite fitting in, and trying to pull hope from life’s difficulties and sadness.
Jeff Tweedy wrote all 12 songs. In “Normal American Kids,” his simple acoustic provides the backing for his plaintive voice, as Nels Cline’s skittering slide guitar adds a tension that helps focus the sad lyrics:
Oh all my spirit leaked like a cut
I knew what I needed would never be enough
I was too high to change my bid
Always afraid to be a normal American kid
Although Tweedy sings many of these songs in a near whisper, his voice is always expressive and full of emotion. “Oh I can’t say what qualifies as pain” he sings in “Nope,” but the verbal imagery throughout Schmilco displays an understanding of how tough and hard to fathom life can be. “Nope” is reminiscent of John Lennon’s confessional songs, and Cline’s understated slide-guitar line gives it shape. The song includes a slightly nervous interlude that’s a quiet version of the sonic playfulness that marked Star Wars.
“Someone to Lose” is the closest thing on Schmilco to full-out rock, with a rolling bass line from John Stirratt and a fuzz guitar that snaps into place as it leads into each chorus. The Beatles-esque “Happiness” has a strong melody and a laid-back rock feel, while “Common Sense” walks a fine line between melody and dissonance in a manner altogether Wilco.
Because Wilco seems to reinvent itself with each album, it often takes a few plays of a new record to let things sink in. Schmilco has such a calm exterior that it’s easy at first to mistake it as passive. A few clues along the way let you know there’s more to it than lying back and taking it easy. “Common Sense” is quiet, but intense and gloriously strange, and “Locator” is tightly coiled and dynamic. Schmilco invites the listener to lean in to hear what happens next.
Glenn Kotche’s drumming is tasteful and understated throughout, giving shape to the songs and, when needed, power. Pat Sansone and Mikael Jorgensen add subtle keyboard touches, such as the bell-like tones in “Happiness,” that help put the songs across. The revelation here is Stirratt, whose bass lines glue Schmilco together, keeping it well grounded and rhythmically centered. He rarely calls attention to himself on Wilco recordings, but he’s a skilled and highly effective player.
Wilco recorded Schmilco during the same sessions that resulted in Star Wars, and wisely decided to release the results as a separate disc. Tom Schick engineered the sessions, coproducing with Jeff Tweedy, and Bob Ludwig mastered the results; the sound has plenty of space to let the music breathe, and Tweedy’s voice is placed well out front.
Wilco has been making records since 1995, and each one has been a surprise. They’re my favorite kind of rock band: unwilling to stay in the same space for too long, and inviting their fans to come along on the journey. Schmilco is low key, but it’s another strong entry from a great American band.
. . . Joseph Taylor