It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when Wilco was regarded with great seriousness as the American answer to Radiohead. The group did everything an arty, serious band was supposed to do: feuded with label execs who refused to release Wilco’s avant-leaning masterpiece, hired Jim O’Rourke, devoted 12 minutes of album time to a migraine-inspired drone.
That feels distant now. With Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), the band embraced a more user-friendly gene—rollicking tempos, duets with Feist, breezy midtempo stompers like “You Never Know” and “Born Alone.” Last year’s Star Wars fuzzed up the guitars but felt slight in songwriting. Schmilco, the band’s 10th, follows with uncharacteristic hastiness. That could be an indication Jeff Tweedy and co. knew they had a better record in them or a sign that this one was unusually effortless to make, but either interpretation is a credit to Schmilco’s candid, unaffected charms.
Schmilco is an acoustic record but not a slow one—thank God—which proves the right vehicle for the band’s loosest, most unadorned set of songs since its debut. There’s electricity here, if not much electric guitar: “Locator” heaves back and forth with reckless abandon, and like many of the songs on Schmilco, it’s over in two minutes and some change. Several other highlights take an uptempo tact: “Someone to Lose” is a slippery, infectious groove rooted in romantic anxiety, while “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)” goofs on the cornball charity anthem “We Are the World” over cartoonish keyboard glimmers.
There’s a ramshackle charm to these songs—the snatches of studio chatter in “Nope,” the way Tweedy drawls “Is that so?” every few lines in “We Aren’t the World,” or the entirety of “Normal American Kids,” a fine, folksy ode to youthful misanthropy. It’s nice to hear Wilco not taking itself too seriously, nicer still to hear some of Tweedy’s shrewdest lyrical nuggets in years. Middle age can breed as much uncertainty as wisdom. On “Just Say Goodbye,” the singer wallows in self-doubt and seems to take a stab at fans who seek redemption in the band’s music, “as if I have answers.” Or maybe it’s about fatherhood; the record has plenty of sonic ties to Sukierae, the one Tweedy did with his son. As on Sukierae, the weak tracks aren’t bad, just uneventful (“Quarters,” “Shrug and Destroy”). But heft isn’t an issue. Neither this one nor Star Wars pass the 38-minute mark.
Schmilco’s goofball title is a nod to Harry Nilsson’s great Nilsson Schmilsson, the album where the late songwriter risked confounding his soft-pop fanbase by branching out into raucous hard-rock (“Jump Into the Fire”) and calypso novelty pop (“Coconut”). (He jumped even deeper into the fire on the bizarro Son of Schmilsson.) It’s a curious reference point, because Schmilco contains few such gambles. Wilco has already passed through its wilderness period, and unlike Nilsson—who sank into alcohol abuse and seriously damaged his vocal cords by the mid-’70s—this band has emerged on the other side settled and healthy. Schmilco feels like aging gracefully. Schmilco will love you.