There's an interview floating around in which Nels Cline, the experimental guitarist and composer who has found refuge in Wilco's enduring current lineup, paints a picture of a band at the peak of its powers. "We can make a dozen different records if you stuck us in the studio tomorrow and gave us one week," he says. He lists them: a noise record or a pop record or a folk record. All in one week.
Given the fact that the band's current roster Cline, singer Jeff Tweedy, drummer Glenn Kotche, bassist John Stirratt, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen is probably the most progressive and multifaceted lineup in the band's history (if not the entirety of American rock), there's little doubt they could. But if The Whole Love, Wilco's eighth record, the record they did make, sounds like a band that could go in a dozen different directions on a whim, it's notable for moving so conscientiously and uniformly together, making it one of the most engaging Wilco records in the better part of a decade.
Case in point: "Art of Almost." The sprawling opener sounds more like Radiohead's Amnesiac than the no-brand Americana of Wilco's 1995 debut, A.M.. Just as the band is fading off into a pixilated oblivion of digital blips and square-wave guitar distortion that kind of resembles Summerteeth with smarter noise and more effusive hooks, Kotche suddenly seems to raise one hand up in the air and start twirling his drumstick, charging ahead into a dead-simple, double-time rock 'n' roll backbeat. What does Nels Cline do with this? He goes off, tearing around the edges in a fuzzy post-rock freakout. This is not a band making a noise record or a pop record or a folk record: in one song, they're making all of the above.
That song's experimental edge is a bit of an outlier on The Whole Love, most of which is less toothy and more straightforward. Much of the record recalls the essential best of the band: a weave of dollar-bin sounds (the cheapie organ riff recalling ? and the Mysterians on "I Might," the retooled vaudeville jive of "Capitol City," even a bit of E.L.O. on "Dawned on Me") and Tweedy's usual songbook of ambiguous confessions, suggestive images and self-aware rocker clichés. There's a wholeness that has only surfaced on a few of Wilco's most remarkable records, like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth. But there's a clear-eyed elegance to the record that is new for the band, too. After drug records and post-drug records and breakthrough records and "return to their roots" records, The Whole Love is older and wiser, promising a late-career greatness. So if the The Whole Love isn't wholly folk, or pop, or noise, it sounds instead like something we haven't heard in a long time: a fully articulated Wilco record.