Some bands manage to create an album that’s widely revered as a Masterpiece, a perceived artistic peak that all subsequent works are doomed to be compared to – usually unfavourably. With Wilco, that album is 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a brooding emission of unease, tension and internal strife resulting in bruised beauty, shook up by producer Jim O’Rourke’s discordant but not excessively disruptive deconstructions and electronic interference. Ever since, Wilco have avoided similar (accidental) grand statements and overt experimentation, opting instead to revel in the simpler joys of their most durable line-up’s warmly unshowy virtuosity in service of bandleader Jeff Tweedy’s increasingly distinctive songwriting.
Having returned to the rootsier terrain Wilco have studiously avoided since 1996’s widescreen classic American rock homage Being There with the twangy live-in-studio feel of last year’s compellingly direct Cruel Country, Cousin emits strong echoes of the band’s celebrated past dalliances with artful deconstruction, with producer Cate Le Bon chopping up the proceedings to produce refreshingly unexpected alternatives to Wilco’s trademark templates.
As with its predecessor, the album doesn’t really resemble the past Wilco albums its core ingredients might immediately bring to mind. That said, it’s pretty difficult not to rewind to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot when looking for reference points for opener ‘Infinite Surprise’: rising from a burst of feedback, the song’s seemingly haphazard arrangement resembles a batch of paint being randomly thrown on to a wall until the separate splashes somehow cohere into a stunning landscape. At the opposite end of the challenge spectrum, ‘When The Levee is Fake’ jangles with beatific sorrow, and the unexpectedly disco-hued closer ‘Meant to Be’ allows pure undiluted emotion to filter through Tweedy’s often elliptical approach to songwriting.
You’re rarely allowed the cosiness of being able to predict what’s about to happen next in the company of Cousin. On tracks like ‘Sunlight Ends’ – a wounded ballad reassembled around a stuttering drum machine – and ‘A Bowl and a Pudding’ (which finds Tweedy muttering on top of a swirling storm of sound that’s simultaneously discomfiting and comforting), familiar Tweedy song templates are twisted into compelling new shapes. The material is unfailingly strong: only the title track’s murkily agitated post-punk twitching fails to fully engage, and the open-eared, explorative spirit of the outcomes belie that this is an alt-rock institution who are about to celebrate their 30th anniversary next year.
Please support Loud And Quiet if you can
If you’re a fan of what we do, please consider subscribing to L&Q to help fund our support of new musicians and independent labels
You can make a big difference for a few pounds per month, and in return we’ll send you our magazines, exclusive flexi discs, and other subscriber bonus bits and pieces
Try for a month and cancel anytime