Album Remarks & Appraisals:
CD/DVD (NTSC/Region 0) Wilco's first studio album in three years, Sky Blue Sky, has been perhaps the most ardently awaited release of '07. Eager fans had taken to shouting out pleas for information to bandleader Jeff Tweedy during his recent solo acoustic tour, and the web chatter has been virtually deafening. Critic Katie Toms of London's The Observer addressed fan speculation in an advance review, declaring, with unalloyed delight: Boy, was it worth the wait.... Simple and soothing, yet rich and rewarding, this is an album you unknowingly yearn for, like a cool hand on a hot forehead. A great album from a band in their prime Sky Blue Sky is as eloquently straightforward as Wilco's last studio recording, the Grammy-winning A Ghost Is Born, was daringly experimental. Tweedy's lyrics deal forthrightly with romantic separation and reconciliation, their bittersweet quality giving way, as the album progresses, to a more uplifting, redemptive mood. Tweedy quite literally banishes the darkness on the penultimate track, the inspiring, gospel-tinged What Light the album's first single and concludes with a deeply affecting, 'til-death-do-us-part lullaby, On and On and On. There are hints of early-seventies Southern California folk-rock sweetness in the harmonies throughout the band-produced Sky Blue Sky, a bluesy Allman Brothers feel to the guitar /keyboard interplay, and plenty of brash guitar solos that take songs like You Are My Face and Shake It Off in thrilling, unexpected directions. This is especially good news for the crowds that will fill the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, this June, where the band plays the first U.S. date of its 2007 world tour in support of Sky Blue Sky. Principal songwriter Tweedy cut these tracks in the band's Chicago studio with members John Stirratt (bass, vocals), Glenn Kotche (drums), Mike Jorgensen (keyboards), Nels Cline (guitars) and Pat Sansone (guitars, keyboards, vocals) all of whom are also becoming notable performers in their own right. A Ghost Is Born co-producer Jim O'Rourke returns as music contributor. The Deluxe Edition includes a bonus DVD, which contains more than 45 minutes of footage of the band performing songs from Sky Blue Sky. The DVD also contains interview segments with all six band members. The film was directed by Christoph Green and Fugazi's Brendan Canty, the creators of the Jeff Tweedy solo concert film, Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest, as well as the acclaimed documentary series, Burn to Shine.
"Wilco's Sky Blue Sky belies the stark black and white of its graphics. It's music of pastels, seemingly designed to lull the listener into a false sense of security.
Consider the fact it was recorded with the lineup of the band including guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline, who brought so much expansive texture to the sextet's tours since joining in 2004. "Shake It Off reminds why he is such an integral member of the group. Yet for the most part he, like the rest of this road-tested unit, becomes faceless on this CD for its duration, sublimated to mere accompaniment for Wilco front man and founder Jeff Tweedy
The one-time co-leader of alternative country pioneers Uncle Tupelo (side-by-side with the brilliant leader of Son Volt, Jay Farrar) writes lyrics such as those on "What Light, containing alternately feel-good aphorisms and almost terminally introspective insights, the sum of which are anything but the universal likes with which a listener might identify. Always somewhat insular, Tweedy now seems never to look outside himself and when he does on "Please Be Patent with Me " or especially "You Are My Face," all he sees is a reflection. A marked exception is this title song, which pivots on an irony rife with latent violence.
Tweedy's main asset has now become his voice. The way he sings is tremendously affecting as he sounds almost childlike in his vulnerability. How much more affecting would his vocals be, though, if more often they were contrasted with the instrumental work around him, which might allow the listener to reflect on what's just been sung. "Either Way is a prime example, especially as Karen Waltuch's viola and violin - bookending the CD and appearing less prominently through the conclusion of "On and On and On - would lend itself to such an effect.
Sky Blue Sky is nevertheless deceptively insinuating, almost intoxicating to listen to. Its impeccable sound quality alone is worth doting on, as the individual instruments resonate off each other beautifully. And the arrangements of tracks such as "Shake It Off (a concession to visionary percussionist Glenn Kotche?) and "Hate It Here remind of nothing so much as latter-period Beatles. The halting time stops, prominent piano work and, again, Cline's eccentric guitar flourishes, as blended on "Side With the Seeds, aren't exactly derivative of the British icons circa Abbey Road(Capitol, 1969), but the influence is unmistakably there.
It's a facet of Wilco's collective personality all the more attractive for a generation of listeners twice removed or more from direct experience of that pop mega-phenomenon. Right now Tweedy sounds a combination of Lennon (in his sloganeering self-help solo days) and McCartney (the artful tunesmith with little if anything to say other than how he turns a melodic phrase). Consequently, Sky Blue Sky becomes the first Wilco album that sounds too careful for its own good." -AllAboutJazz
Rolling Stone (p.87) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "[O]ften beautiful, disarmingly simple music; it really sounds like six guys playing in a room, and no doubt that's how they wanted it."
Rolling Stone (p.116) - Included in Rolling Stone's "50 Top Albums of the Year 2007" -- "[There is] a psychedelic grace and communal warmth both in the music...and Tweedy's lyric optimism."
Spin (p.89) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "[T]his is a near-perfect album by a band that seems, finally, to have found their identity."
Alternative Press (p.159) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "Cline positively smolders, ebbing and flowing between the rest of the band, laying intricate groundwork for these songs..."
Alternative Press (p.128) - Included in Alternative Press's '10 Essential Albums Of 2007' -- "[With] Jeff Tweedy's 'I've been to hell and back' vocals and Nels Cline's delicately constructed fretwork..."
Magnet (p.112) - "Jeff Tweedy has never sounded more at ease than on the aptly named SKY BLUE SKY....The album's tone is set by the gentle string swells and delicate, jazzy guitar solo punctuating opener 'Either Way'..."
The Wire (p.68) - "Cline is one of the best things to have happened to Wilco, his improvisational style bringing some spontaneity to the group's [sound]....SKY BLUE SKY is a step forward for Wilco..."
No Depression (p.87) - "[T]he way Tweedy and company work the details is satisfying, and often inspired. 'Either Way' links musical sections together in a manner that lays out the album's strategies."
While Wilco's fifth studio album, A GHOST IS BORN, didn't come equipped with quite the same artsy, experimental flourishes as the album's infamous predecessor, YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT, it made officially clear that the band's days in the world of alt-country had long since passed. SKY BLUE SKY (2007) finds the band not so much in a holding pattern, but rather a state of artistic contentment. The album moves one step further away from Jim O'Rourke's atmospheric production style, and finds a pleasant mid-tempo groove that reminds one of PRETZEL LOGIC-era Steely Dan, mid-period Dylan, and even certain elements of John Lennon's solo work.
Of course this is still Jeff Tweedy's band, which means SKY BLUE SKY never strays too far from what has emerged as a basic Wilco template. The constantly shifting Chicago ensemble (in its umpteenth incarnation by the album's release) still displays an instrumental precision and studio professionalism while working within a newfangled roots template, and Tweedy himself remains as searching as always, both lyrically and musically. With nary a rave-up in sight, the album could be criticized for being overly serene, but in a career marked by nearly constant tumult and controversy, it's more appropriate to see this as Jeff Tweedy's much needed and well-earned rest.
DVD Features include:
Sky Blue Sky
Please Be Patient With Me
Shake It Off
Side With The Seeds
Hate It Here