“Wilco go country” is more of a thought exercise here than a functional reality. There’s a bit more pedal steel and slide guitar on these 21 songs than we’ve heard from the band lately, but compared to, say, Mermaid Avenue — on which Wilco and Billy Bragg wrote music for unused Woody Guthrie song lyrics — Cruel Country does not stand out as an especially twangy effort. In tone and disposition, it’s not so different from any other album Tweedy has released in the last half-decade or so — another entry in his catalog’s bleary, meditative long tail. There’s definitely a consistent vibe across the tracklist, but what unifies these 21 songs more than adherence to a particular genre is that, for the first time since 2007’s dreamy, noodly Sky Blue Sky, the six members of Wilco recorded live together in a room.
The results are not as immediate as that premise implies. Cruel Country is not going to blow you away like that run of Wilco albums from Being There through [whenever you, personally, decided Wilco stopped making masterpieces]. It might actually bore you, depending on your mood. Yet the more time I spend with the album, the more I love it. The most old-fashioned aspect of Cruel Country is not the live recording or the loose genre framework — it’s that the best way to listen to the album might be curled up with the words on the page, giving the music your full focus. These songs reward deep, active listening. At the moment I feel like they comprise Tweedy’s best collection of lyrics to date. In terms of writing, arrangement, and performance, it’s a masterful display of subtlety.
Groan at that if you want. Sometimes I want to groan at it myself. I don’t think I will ever prefer this older, more mature version of Wilco over the ambitious unit that once took big swings like “Misunderstood” and “Via Chicago” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” I miss the way their albums used to explode from the speakers with energy and ideas and hooks. I miss when they rocked hard and when they seemed to be dissecting the concept of rock music in real time. I miss the old adventurous spirit, the way they used to reinvent themselves on each new album. Thus, I wouldn’t blame anyone for skipping over the new material and sticking to the classics where Wilco are concerned; there’s more than enough genius back there to sustain a lifetime of fandom. Still, when I make my peace with where Tweedy is at now as a songwriter — when I listen to his new album on its own terms, not as a way of chasing those old thrills — I am deeply impressed.
Whether penning wry rock tunes or warm-hearted ballads, Tweedy’s default for a few albums now has been the musical equivalent of a sigh — sometimes exhausted, sometimes contented, but almost universally low-key, rendered in various shades of greyscale and sepiatone by Tweedy and co-producer Tom Schick. Wilco’s last album, 2019’s Ode To Joy, applied some Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era studio tinkering to bear on this era of his writing, with stellar results. It was my favorite Wilco album in a long, long time, but some listeners shrugged it off as one more dreary exercise in diminishing returns. (I don’t know how someone could listen to “Before Us” or “Hold Me Anyway” and think that, but I digress.)