The placement on the End of the Decade list for Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. For all intents and purposes, I’ve been heralding it as the greatest album of the decade for about as long as its songs have been bouncing back and forth throughout my head. Though there are probably a lot of naysayers, I personally believe that, if any record is deserving of the top spot, it may as well be this one. Sure, it lacks the recreation that Radiohead underwent in the process of creating Kid A, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is, by all means, just as much a record born of the downfall of the music industry as we knew it, at the time.
The album also built itself it’s own personal mythos: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was originally scheduled to be released September 11th, 2001. However, after the album had been completed, fully and wholly, Reprise Records’ president was fired in the AOL and Time Warner merger. Howie Klein, the president, was a massive supporter of the band, and after he left, record execs began doing what they seem to be famous for and started making demands, complaining that the album lacked any songs worthy of a single or wide radio play. After the band failed to deliver, Reprise dropped Wilco, and after a small legal battle, gave the rights to the completed record over to the band. The album was then sold to Nonesuch Records, which just so happen to be a smaller subsidiary of AOL Time Warner, Reprise’s parent company. In essence, as Jeff Tweedy points out in the film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, AOL Time Warner paid for the album twice.
Still, Yankee Hotel is worth every penny of the money poured into it by the two record labels, and then some. Beginning with a piano and an acoustic guitar, frontman Jeff Tweedy sings the album opener, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” as though every last inch of him is soaked in as much liquor as he could legally get his hands on. “I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue.” He doesn’t merely walk, or saunter, he assassins. Playing as a breakup song in reverse, Tweedy croons his cryptic love song, telling a former lover “What was I thinking when I let go of you?”
Two songs later in the moody strum of “Radio Cure,” Tweedy reprises his gin-soaked whine with lines as simple as “Oh, distance has no way of making love understandable,” but as sweepingly confusing as “Picking apples for the kings and queens of things I’ve never seen.” “Radio Cure” is, to me, the finest demonstration on the record of how to adequately create murk; the minutiae of the looming drum beat and the thick piano and guitar, boiling into a stew, with no better word in sight. Static crackles around Tweedy’s Southern drawl, as he sings of “electronic surgical words” and how “there is something wrong with me.” The song ends just as it began, with him pleading, “Cheer up honey, I hope you can.”
Jeff Tweedy builds a kind of drunken philosophy in the repetitions found in the record, the best example of which being the fantastically juxtaposed next song, “War on War.” The chorus twangs with perfect nonsense: “You have to learn to die/if you want to want to be alive.” On “Ashes of American Flags,” the chorus bleeds with the same blue blood: “All my lies are always wishes/I know I would die if I could come back new.” The brilliance that oozes from every pore of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is that which bled from an album in the same way as Death Cab for Cutie’s unspoken masterpiece We Have The Facts and We’re Voting Yes did: the entirety of the album is lyrics that you wish you had thought of first, and probably did, but forgot to write down. While on the latter, Ben Gibbard sang “We spread out and occupied the cracks in the urban streets,” Tweedy sings “If I could, you know I would hold your hand and you’d understand, I’m the man that loves you” on “I’m the Man That Loves You,” or, with the first verse of album closer “Reservations,” “How can I convince you it’s me I don’t like/And not be so indifferent to the look in your eyes/When I’ve always been distant/And I’ve always told lies for love.” The words are put together in a way that, when you think to yourself, “I want to write like that,” you just come up with lyrics that he’s already written.
In the slow-building gem “Poor Places,” Tweedy reveals that he is certainly aware of everything I’ve said: that he’s a bit of a lush, and his words have been pulled from the everything: “There’s bourbon on the breath/Of the singer you love so much/He takes all his words from the books/That you don’t read anyway.” As the song builds, and even the siren roar of the guitars can’t drown out that cryptic and ethereal voice (“Poor Places” includes a sample of a song from The Conet Project, a collection of transmissions from shortwave numbers stations, of a woman repeating the phonetic code Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), you understand that Jeff Tweedy isn’t a liar, or a fake, or a drunk, or any of the things you think he is, or even that he thinks he is. Tweedy is merely a man who has made a lot of poor decisions with himself, has loved and lost, has gone crazy and regained his sanity, all in a fraction of a fraction of a second. “Poor Places” and “Reservations” are the end to a fever dream, one that began to grow in “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and just never ceased until the woman stopped repeating those three words.
Or maybe I’m a liar. “I’m not gonna get caught calling a pot kettle black,” he says in “Pot Kettle Black,” the song just before “Poor Places.” He might be a liar and a drunk, after all. However, he may be such a good liar, he’s convinced you that he’s a bad liar, so you think he’s just a good man. Who knows. The real truth lies in lyrics like those in the dramatically underrated “Jesus, Etc.”: “You were right about the stars, each one is a setting sun.” Jeff Tweedy may very well be the world’s best songwriter, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot proves that. However, you just can’t really be sure if he just made the whole thing up.
For those interested in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the backstory of the album, you can download the album here, the film here, and the entirety of The Conet Project here. You can learn more about The Conet Project here (wiki) and here (website), and are encouraged to wrap yourself up in the eerie mystery of it.