Wilco – when not batting away the vague dismissal of their music as “dad-rock” – are mostly identified with a style called alt country, a name that tends to be associated with the compromise between traditional songwriting and (potentially) jarring experimentation. The ratio of familiarity to originality is loose in the band’s songwriting; early albums didn’t stray as far from the establishment as those of the past ten years.
Since their genre defining Yankee Hotel Foxtrot LP first meshed Americana extensively with white noise, only the sweet Sky Blue Sky gave undoubted (and undue, in the view of more restless fans) prominence to country music tradition. Their eighth studio album matches neither of the aforementioned for a unified vision, but, at points, it channels various phases of Wilco’s growth. Despite frequently leaning towards the sunny simplicity of 1999’s Summerteeth, The Whole Love leaves an overriding impression of a band secure with the diversity of its own 17 years’ development.
There’s still room for non-compliance with previous efforts, though: the two album-bookending highlights exploit separate exploratory strands. ‘Art of Almost’ ushers the record in with crackling effects, loops of muddled electro-acoustic beats and a synth string crescendo. Truly bedded in after the opening minutes, the repeated rhythms quieten down until a meter change out of nowhere brings the drums bursting back. It all leads to a thrilling solo from resident guitar virtuoso Nels Cline, which doesn’t so much provide the album’s heart as offer one of its many distinct enjoyable elements.
Closer ‘One Sunday Morning (song for Jane Smiley’s boyfriend)’ centres much more on Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting, on this occasion relating details of a difficult relationship between the novelist Jane Smiley’s boyfriend and his God fearing father – a topic so explicitly specific as to be unlike his typical output. As acoustic as the opener was electric, the pristine layered arrangement ebbs and flows over the course of the song’s twelve minutes, increasingly carrying hints of former collaborator Jim O’Rourke as the neatly placed piano, guitar and glockenspiel parts develop.