Wilco and ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot:’ Paranoia, ashes, love, beauty and 20 years of a masterpiece

The American band’s most influential album perfectly captured the post-9/11 sentiment

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Some sounds change us forever. A synthesizer travels from right to left, then from left to right again, a thought trapped in a time capsule. A drum throbs insistently, like a beating heart awaking after a long silence. Then they vanish. Bells are heard, the sound of a distant alarm clock in the midst of faint distortions. Then an awakening: the kick drum, that restless heart, returns, now accompanied by luminous bass and guitars. The frank, weathered voice sings: “I’m an American aquarium drinker, avenue killer. I’m hiding in the big city blinking, what was I thinking when I let you go? Welcome to the big flashing city. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is the anthem that awakens its streets. The metropolis may be far away, or it may exist in the very center of our heart. It doesn’t matter much, or worse, everything matters, because both places are the same.

Some dreams turn into nightmares, but a few remain in an eerie limbo. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album that is born in that limbo. Everything feels real, yet there remains a persistent sense that something bad is going to happen. A paranoia waits to be defused, but it never disappears. What could be more disturbing? “I’m trying to break your heart,” sings the voice inside the city, that flash between shadows. Jeff Tweedy sings, and Wilco takes the listener to a new territory, a spectral space, an artistic accomplishment on par with the best musical works in history.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has just turned 20. Those of us who are lucky enough to remember its release recall it as a musical event—and not in the vein of Rosalía, C. Tangana or Adele, nor even the Arctic Monkeys. At that time, indie still had a long way to go to reach mass appeal. Hardly anyone was interested in Americana, the rich well of the United States’ musical traditions. Still, it was an event. Wilco brought Americana to indie, or they brought indie to Americana. It didn’t matter: they created their own territory, exciting, strange, addictive. They marked a milestone in the lives of many people who listened to it. Nothing else was necessary. Love requires nothing more.

The British magazine Uncut described Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as “the Kid A of Americana.” It’s impossible to be clearer: Radiohead with boots or a cowboy hat. It was so disconcerting that, on a first listen, even a second, many had to stop to discern what was happening, with that drinker walking and blinking through the streets of that enigmatic city, presided over by two identical towers, known in the earthly world as the corncob towers, in Chicago, Wilco’s home and the city where the buildings are found.

The twin towers of the twinkling city appear on the cover of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Today they are the stars of one of the most iconic covers of music. The two towers are a powerful symbol for an album whose recording process ended in early 2001. It was set to be released that September, but Warner Music subsidiary Reprise Records was so disappointed with the album’s lack of “commercial potential” that, despite having advanced the band $85,000 to record it, it refused to release the album. The group had to find a new label. The story is told in the album’s accompanying documentary, which bears the title of the opening song, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” The film also portrays the tensions between Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who eventually left the band.

History tends to wait for the great works of its time. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, as both a narrative and musical work, is largely the fruit of Jeff Tweedy’s serious migraines. (Tweedy was addicted to painkillers at the time.) Its oppressive atmosphere captures the depressing panorama of the United States after the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Beyond the parallels with the twin towers on the album’s cover, the music exists within a strangely gloomy world. A little light attempts to enter the nightmare–a little light like the tip of a cigarette, in the middle of a night where “each star is a setting sun”, as is sung in Jesus, Etc., the same song where the landscape itself is described as a prophecy: “Tall buildings shake / Voices escape singing sad, sad songs.”

That little light, that last cigarette–”Is it all you can get?” is the great wonder of this album. The listener cannot stop following the light, from the first song, where the American aquarium drinker wakes up inside the city, through that distorted daydream through memories and desires. It’s there in every song looking for love, or lamenting that it’s fading away, or claiming it again as in I’m the Man Who Loves You, where the little light seems to be brighter, more urgent, than at other times. The little light is a constant lyrical yearning for human contact. It appears more beautiful, more special, truly unique, because it is dressed with pedal steel, string passages, pianos, trumpets, timbres or folk acoustic guitars. It is a flame that lives on despite its pain.

It is a flame in a world of ashes, or, as sung in the song of the same name, a world of “ashes of American flags.” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had the quality of the best works of art in history: it talked about something bigger than itself. With that American aquarium drinker, Wilco got at the mystery behind post-9/11 psychology. They put music to the pain of a country, of a vulnerable nation attacked on its own land for the first time in its history, of a paranoid society that understood the world only as a place to unleash obsessions. Absolute sadness. The city is in ruins. Pure abrasion. Bruce Springsteen may have been a mouthpiece for hope in “The Rising,” but Wilco got to the essence of the lights and shadows within madness.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is rough and scratchy. It gives off the dull noise of a scorched landscape: distortions, frenetic winds, instrumental emergency, delirium. It is the delirium of a world in ashes, where a little light, still alive, walks around the city, rubbing its eyes, making us part of the paranoia of its desperate search for love. Anyone who has ever despaired can understand what urgency sounds like, that “voice climbing walls,” the sirens of sunken ships that are heard in Pot Kettle Black. At the end of the album, in Poor Places, we discover a hotel: the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, where the little light stays. Is it a nightmare? Of course not. There is no real fear, but an honest search for contact in a lonely hotel.

A strange dream. An eerie limbo. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot closes with a return to synthesizers, to bursts of thoughts locked in time, to that dreamlike atmosphere. “None of this is real enough to take me from you. I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about you,” Tweedy sings on Reservations. Nothing is real, enough in a song of more than seven minutes in which the sound fades between the squeaking of swings, between light and anguish. The dream in limbo ends, and the deep funereal bells ring. Again the synthesizer plays from left to right and back again. Are we returning to reality? A distant metallic sound suggests so. The blinking city has vanished. So has the hotel, where the little light sees that “someone ties a bow in my backyard to show me love.”

After experiencing this record, it is impossible to be the same person. Perhaps the listener does not become a better person, but they become, at least, more pious.

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