The enduring power of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

By the time Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released 16 years ago this week its legend already seemed assured. It had gained mythical status through a series of events – some of the band’s own making, some not – which gave the appearance of a portentous, prescient and prophetic record.

The story of the album has been told so many times in those intervening years that, like an alt-country version of Chinese Whispers, its mythology has overtaken the record. (‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,’ Sam Jones’s close-up documentary also made sure you had an intimate, first-hand view of its birth). It was full of beautiful irony: this was an album rejected by one Warner Bros. subsidiary for not being commercially viable (Reprise, who dropped them), only to be bought by another Warner Bros. subsidiary (Nonesuch) and went on to sell over half a million copies.

It was also one ahead of its time: after gaining control of the album the band decided to stream the album online on their site for free at a time when doing so was unheard of (though the fact that many people had a dial-up connection meant they were probably listening in five-second buffered bursts). A record label-free band streaming their own record on their site? Kanye would be proud.

There were more portentous events that loomed over the record too. If you believe the myths, Wilco had such foresight that they recorded a poignant album about 9/11 – months before 9/11 occurred. This theory emerged due to the fact that the record was originally set for a September 11, 2001 release and the lyrics about falling buildings, skyscrapers, and ‘saluting the ashes of American flags’, all which cast long shadows over the songs. ‘War on War’ could be a mantra for the post 9/11 world.

“In many ways Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became more metaphor than record”

All this meant that in many ways Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became more metaphor than record – there was so much to say about it, too few people talked about what it actually sounded like. The truth is that over 15 years later the album endures because of the personal connections and rich details in the music, not in the mythology.

There’s one scene in Jones’ documentary that, to me, captures everything that makes sense of the record. Jeff Tweedy is at an awkward, uncomfortable backstage meet-and-greet, a group of fans standing around him. One asks what the new album sounds like. Tweedy, obviously not wanting to be there, mutters something about how the music is full of ”holes.” They look nonplussed so he tries to explain himself: “Open spaces between what’s supposed to be, like, the music… I dunno,” he shrugs before slipping away.

But that perfectly explains the album to me; a record that sounded as if it would crumble apart under your touch but was also monumental in its scope. You fill your emotions in all those gaps and holes that Tweedy mentions because they make sense of the other things that are happening. Even as you listen to ‘Ashes of American Flags’ dissolve into a minute of abrasive dissonance and dread, you realise for all the talk of it being experimental there’s the dusty fingerprints of ‘proper songwriting’ all over it but the trick is it’s weaved together with those experimental look forwards as all the static and strange noises that whirred beneath the songs.

Tweedy’s mounting tensions with co-writer Jay Bennett are documented in Jones’s film – and he was thrown out of the band after the record was finished – but it’s clear he brings a lot here. Jim O’Rourke’s production skilfully helps capture the suffocating but uncluttered atmosphere too.

From the opening moments of the first song there’s a sense of pain, confusion and a lack of understanding that bleeds through everything. As the feedback, drums and ringing alarm clocks of ‘I am Trying to Break Your Heart’ hum and Tweedy gives us one of my favourite lines – “I want to hold you in the Bible-black predawn” – as the eerie toy piano chimes in the background. It unfurls beautifully – colours bloom from under the shadows.

And that happens throughput the album. There’s a crumbling, frustrated grace to both the music and what Tweedy is singing about and a paranoid but fully beating heart underneath it all. Tweedy, his bruised and tender voice up high in the mix, sings about the timeless crisis of communication creating a warm tension that runs through it as the music dissolves and radio drones and chaotic drum beats wheeze underneath.

Tweedy’s words are knotty, abstract and sometimes searing. Subtle twists of poetic phrases reveal anger, frustration and a self-hatred. He sings “all my lies are always wishes”. He returns to the familiar ATMs and Diet Coke and cigarettes. But though there’s nostalgia (and love) mostly there’s a lack of sentimentality as he struggles to communicate with friends, lovers, and himself.

“His struggle to make sense of his mind and find the words feels a bit too relatable”

The ‘holes’ on ‘Radio Cur’e are vast – it seems barely a song, more a strum over broken machinery as Tweedy sings “Cheer up, honey I hope you can” and bleakly states “there’s something wrong with me”. But it’s beautiful and his struggle to make sense of his mind and find the words feels a bit too relatable. His “mind is filled with silvery stuff / honey, kisses, clouds of fluff” but also ” radio cures / electronic, surgical words.” He wants to tell someone how much they mean but the white noise of his mind gets in the way. The chorus, if you can call it a chorus, cuts your heart right open.

That’s what always got me and why I always come back to the record. Because for all that’s made of the album’s experimentalism, its confrontational distortion and its raw vulnerability these are, at their heart, mostly classic, beautiful songs about trying to understand your broken mind and your broken heart – and we always need that. The holes Tweedy spoke about make sure you can always pour your own feelings in.

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