Wilco are perhaps the most mythologized band in America. In 2002, upon completing their critically lauded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Jeff Tweedy and his cohorts slew the major-label dragon by taking the album, which Warner-owned Reprise Records had rejected, and selling it to Warner-owned Nonesuch Records for a handsome profit. Essentially, Warner bought the album twice. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot debuted at number 11 on the Billboard album charts and was named album of the year by several publications.
Capturing all this hubbub was filmmaker Sam Jones, who released his fawning documentary, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, just a few months after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The grainy, black-and-white feature chronicled the band's ordeal recording and releasing the album, as well as the passive-aggressive infighting that led to the dismissal (and subsequent fan vilification) of longtime multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett.
In 2004, following Tweedy's much-publicized battle with painkillers, Wilco released a follow-up, the underwhelming and underperforming A Ghost Is Born. Several months later, two books appeared giving very different versions of the band's history and creative method: Learning How To Die, by Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot, and The Wilco Book. The latter is perhaps the more interesting of the two.
As its title suggests, The Wilco Book is a form of mythologizing. Band members, engineers, and guitar techs explain their musical philosophies and unique approaches to whatever instrument they play, record, or tune. There are impressionistic passages from Tweedy about writing lyrics and constructing song cycles around vague concepts, alongside extremely technical descriptions and diagrams about stage set-ups and PA wiring. The book contains a section explaining not just how the band relates to its audience in a live setting but how its equipment is set up to complement that relationship.
The book works best when the text and images complement each other, as when the band members caption Michael Schmelling's photographs of their instruments. Particularly enlightening are the photograph of Tweedy's bass from his years in Uncle Tupelo and a box of multicolor guitar picks, which, Tweedy explains, are "the only way to keep track of the days of the week on the road." But mostly, these images treat the equipment as icons, signifiers of a holy entity and therefore possessed of supernatural powers. But Wilco are not engaging in self-praise. It's the music, not the musicians, that is elevated beyond the ordinary. The Wilco Book hints that the band members are merely conduits for a larger American pop tradition, conducting music the same way wires conduct electricity.
What will most interest hard-core Wilco fans about this book is the disk of 12 unreleased tracks, recorded during the sessions following Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the sessions for A Ghost Is Born. On its own, this disk is an album of hidden tracks, any one of which would sound better and more excusable coming at the end of a proper album -- after 12 or so minutes of silence. However, heard in conjunction with these images and passages of text, they likewise tell a story in a summary, disjointed fashion and reveal more about the band's creative process than a straight narrative like Learning How To Die ever could.
The Wilco Book explains how Wilco make their music, but it neglects to explain why Wilco make their music, what drives and inspires them. Adding more biographical information or third-person commentaries might have illuminated the band's restless spirit. Only Rick Moody's essay gives an outsider's perspective or any background on the songs themselves. The Wilco Book implies a creative intimacy with Wilco, but by not delving into their creative urges, it fails to deliver on that promise.
Such motivations, however, are not easily summed up in images or text. Only the music itself can answer the question why. Perhaps when the band members take to the Orpheum, when all the people and instruments and equipment featured in The Wilco Book join together on stage, the why of Wilco will be self-evident. n