In Better late than never, audiovisual club writers attempt to fill gaps in their overall knowledge and experience of pop culture.
There is an episode in the first season of Joe Pera speaks with you where the fictionalized version of “Joe Pera” hears The Who’s classic “Baba O’Riley” for the first time. He becomes so enamored with the song that he declares his love for it during church announcements. He calls radio stations asking them to play it for him, dancing erratically around the room, as if he’s never heard a better piece of music; at one point, he even invites the pizza delivery boy to join the party. When I watched this episode, I wondered if I would ever feel so thrilled to discover an old but new piece of music for me. That moment came when I finally listened to Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the summer of 2021.
It’s as surprising to me as it is to Wilco fans reading this that it took me so long to listen Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Wilco is a band that people I’ve met over the years have spoken to at length about having a strong emotional connection – and to some extent it worried me that I couldn’t connect with his music on the same level. But I found the record at a fortuitous moment: a month before listening to it, I had experienced a breakup. Things had ended abruptly, marred by miscommunication, unprocessed feelings, and anxiety.
The record – written by Jeff Tweedy in part about miscommunication and the struggle to process emotions – feels ageless after twenty, with lyrics that feel like a glimpse into the mind of someone who can’t verbalize his feelings. But reducing Tweedy’s poetic and thoughtful lyrics to someone who is simply incapable of having a safe and healthy relationship would be a disservice, however tempting.
Wilco’s fourth record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was born at a pivotal moment for the group. Drummer Ken Coomer and Tweedy disagreed in leadership of the band, with enough friction to have him replaced by Glenn Kotche amid planning for the LP. The band were coming off the heels of their critically acclaimed 1999 record, summer teeth, but I wanted to try something new. Thus was born Yankee Hotel Foxtrotan album that opened up possibilities for sonic experimentation that Wilco hadn’t tried it yet. This bet to create something different has paid off.
On first listen, it was cathartic to hear the opening track, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” where Tweedy sings about conflicted feelings in a tumultuous relationship. In the lyrics, it’s clear that the pair care for each other, unable to fully break free from a dynamic that isn’t working, but they know they will end up hurting their partner.
“What was I thinking when I said hello?””, Tweedy asks, bearing the burden of knowing that he broke his partner’s heart. But he’s torn between indecision whether to close the chapter after an on-and-off relationship, or stay because there’s still an emotional attachment: “What was I thinking when I let you go? »
the the confusion of its emotions goes hand in hand with the instrumentation, as Wilco combines busy sounds including synths, piano, bells, percussion and guitar. It’s almost like you don’t know where to focus your emotions. It’s overwhelming, yet melodic. It’s disorienting, yet oddly comforting, much like the dynamic Tweedy is talking about.
His lyrics skillfully capture conflicting feelings, often sounding like he’s trying to make sense of them in real time. This feeling is expressed in “I am the man who loves you”, Tweedy struggling to find a way to understand his thoughts and put them into words, allowing him to explain to his partner how he feels:
All I can see is black and white and white and pink with blades of blue/
that was between the words that I think of on a page that I wanted to send to you /
I couldn’t tell if this would bring my heart the way I wanted when I started /
writing you this letter
Can’t he just hold his partner’s hand and show her how much he cares and loves her, rather than going through the confusing process of putting those emotions into words? It’s a relatable feeling.
The rhythm of the song is arranged in a way that resembles how scattered thoughts seep through, with a fast, punchy beat. You can tell he knows how he feels deep down: it should be as simple as that. But the lyrics also come from an anxious source, which understands that love is unclear. It’s a sentiment explored in much of the record, including songs like “Radio Cure” and fan favorites. “Poor Places”.
“Radio Cure” is soft and haunting, with synths that reproduce the sound of radio waves. But it addresses a more concrete difficulty of the relationship: distance. This can be interpreted as a metaphorical distance, Tweedy keeping his partner at a distance, while he sings, “Oh, distance has no way of making love understandable.” But it also feels literal and very personal, since Tweedy has openly had marital struggles after being on the road for so much summer teeth. It’s a reminder of what happens when a couple is separated due to work or other commitments, unable to spend time understanding each other and giving each other the proper affection.
In “Poor Places,” similarly, Tweedy addresses the effects of depression and how mental health issues create a disconnect in his relationship. There are references to depending on alcohol for coping. He wants to be there for his partner (“I really want to see you tonight”) but it’s not possible because of this forced distance. Again, “Poor Places” takes a more streamlined approach; the synths are still busy, and we hear the voice of the radio, repeating the name of the album. Moreover, the inclusion of the “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” recording hints that this track is the thesis of the album: there are boundaries that are simply beyond his control, disconnecting Tweedy’s desires from the actions he takes. he undertakes.
But the most emotionally charged track is closer to “Reservations.” It sounds like the kind of intimate, quiet argument a couple would have about a partner’s inability to commit. “How can I convince you it’s me I don’t love / And not be so indifferent to the look in your eyes / When I’ve always been distant and always told lies for love ” is such a vulnerable confession. It’s easy to succumb to anxiety, especially when a relationship hits snags, and to have those reservations.
OWhat gives “Reservations” a particularly heavy quality is the way the music matches the intensity of the lyrics. Resonating synths accompanied by piano can break you deeply. The haunting instrumental interlude adds even more gravitas. In closing the case, it is understood that part of the reason there is so much misunderstanding and confusion in the narrative told on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is because there’s so much bubbling beneath the surface for Tweedy’s lyrical vocals. Love is messy. It’s a bet. It’s hard to show your most vulnerable self to someone, exposing the ugly parts hidden inside.
Catch Wilco playing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on the band’s anniversary tour, I found myself moved to tears when they performed “Reservations.” Even the rowdiest spectators fell into deep silence, soaking up the weight of Tweedy’s words.
But Yankee Hotel Foxtrot isn’t all about those deeply emotional conversations about relationship dynamics. There’s the ambiguously lyric classic “Jesus Etc.”, which despite being written before 9/11, oddly contains the line “Tall building shake / voices escape singing sad sad songs /tuned to the chords strung on your cheeks /bitter melodies that spin your orbit. Its melancholy imagery is paired with dazzling string arrangements; it’s easy to see why it’s one of the the band’s greatest songs.
“Camera” is another standout. It doesn’t feel as lyrically heavy as the rest of the album, but still alludes to Tweedy’s distress, as he sings, “Phone my family / tto one ‘em i’m lost on the sidewalk /aAnd no, it’s not okay” in the chorus. But those feelings are disguised by driving guitar and shimmering synths.
Then there’s “Heavy Metal Drummer”, which almost feels like an outlier on the album. While most songs take a softer approach, “Heavy Metal Drummer” is poppy and effervescent, with Tweedy longing for the days of his youth, playing KISS covers, “beautiful and stoned”. It might not be the best song Tweedy has ever written, but there’s something infectious about his sound that makes you want to stay in that moment of energizing nostalgia before you have to face the harsh reality of today.
The beauty of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I realize is that although there are so many Wilco fans who have a strong attachment to the history of the making of the record, you don’t need to know the details of the production of Jim O’Rourke, or the contributions of the late Jay Bennett to the compositions, to love and understand it. Tweedy writes for himself, but the lyrics stand the test of time because they resonate so strongly with anyone who struggles to express their emotions as they struggle with depression, anxiety and the self-doubt. And beyond the lyrics, it has a very distinct and alluring sound that makes you want to stay with the record longer. It can be played on a loop without being the least bit distracting.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was almost not released, between Reprise Records dissatisfied with the recordand Wilco initially choosing September 11, 2001 as the premiere date. What if Tweedy hadn’t taken matters into his own hands, self-releasing the album amid the search for a new label? It’s hard to think where the band, or its fans, would be without Yankee Hotel Foxtrotno matter when he came into our lives.
A few rows in front of me stood a father with his preteen son, embracing him as they watched the show. I thought of the gift of passing such a powerful record down through the generations. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album that seems to find us when we need it most. Each fan has a different story of their emotional attachment, but the impact is the same for everyone.