10 Years Ago: Wilco Bounce Back From Difficult Times With the Comfy ‘Sky Blue Sky’
For Wilco, Sky Blue Sky was like starting over. Having recently remade his personal life, band leader Jeff Tweedy reworked the lineup, and then reimagined the creative process.
They emerged on May 15, 2007 with Wilco's best-charting album, a quieter, more considered effort that had its beginnings in a live, intimate setting.
"The idea for the way we recorded this record has been around a long time, but we really haven't been able to execute it before: To be able to sit in a circle and hear everybody at once, without having to scrutinize, overdub, and do all the laborious stuff I don't have the patience for," Tweedy told Mother Jones in 2007. "It's what we've been aiming for with Wilco the whole time."
The journey there was arduous. Wilco's label had initially refused to release 2001's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and by the time it finally arrived both Jay Bennett (Tweedy's late songwriting partner) and Ken Coomer (their founding drummer) were no longer in the band. Tweedy began to struggle with an addiction to painkillers around the time of 2004's aggressive, abstract follow up, A Ghost Is Born.
A stint in rehab followed for Tweedy, then the career-shifting arrivals of guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone. Keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen also assumed a more prominent creative role. Along the way, Sky Blue Sky – in keeping with its title – became a more wide-open affair, with everyone chipping in. Tweedy answered with some of his most soulful, approachable work yet.
"I'm a lot happier than I've ever been," Tweedy told Mother Jones. "When you're dealing with addiction and depression, you end up not being as direct or as honest in the writing and the process as you'd like to be. The world is complex, confusing, scary enough. Before, I would make things too baroque, too complicated. Now I just want somebody to sing me some f---ing songs."
This new six-piece amalgamation gathered to work in a single room, without headphones or foam-covered walls between them. That couldn't have been more different than A Ghost is Born, which found Tweety presenting nearly complete songs that he'd previously sketched out on Pro Tools. "I often wonder," Cline told NME in 2007, "if you listen to the album closely if you can hear traffic going by, because there was no soundproofing."
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That was all part of the plan, really. For Tweedy, Sky Blue Sky came to represent "a conscious effort to focus on what a new band focuses on: playing together, and trying to get real performances," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2011.
Still, Cline admitted that he was unsure, at first, of what his role might be in Wilco. "A Ghost is Born had such great guitar playing by Jeff on it, in my opinion, I was kind of worried that by having me in the band, Jeff was going to take a step back and not present his guitar playing quite so much," Cline told the Sun Chronicle in 2009. "And I expressed that to him and he said, 'Let's just sort it out later.'"
Turns out, they intertwined perfectly on tracks like "Walken" and the superlative "Impossible Germany," giving Sky Blue Sky striking new musical depth. Building off the quiet intensity of songs like "At Least That's What You Said" and "Hell Is Chrome" from A Ghost is Born, Tweedy seemed to revel in this era's utter normalcy on songs like "Either Way," "Please Be Patient With Me" and "Hate It Here."
Elsewhere, Wilco traded in Jim O'Rourke-led experiments in noise for the comfy classic-rock confines of Grateful Dead-isms ("What Light") and Crazy Horse freakouts ("You Are My Face"). "The further along we got," Tweedy told Mother Jones, "the less it felt like we had anything we needed to be true to."
In the end, Wilco had never sounded more domesticated and at peace – and probably never will. At the same time, Sky Blue Sky slowly revealed great depths. The title track recalled the lonesome long-distance lovers of "Far, Far Away" from 1996's Being There, but this time the traveler is back home, surveying the damage left by time spent apart. "On and On and On" traced the emotional journey of a widowed father.
Ruminating on how they got to this place, Tweedy said Sky Blue Sky was all about giving up on expectations, on assumptions and on all the bad vibes that came before. "I heard somebody say that soul music is being proud of where you're from and what you've accomplished, and letting that show – losing some self-consciousness and ego to join something larger," he told Mother Jones. "I like that idea a lot, just letting it all hang out, and on this album we did our best at that."
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