In 1997, Wilco’s double album Being There became a fundamental pivot for the Chicago band in a decade filled with triumphs. Twenty-five years later, those songs live on in the band’s live shows, even though in the studio Wilco have traveled to a very different place. The evidence lies on Cruel Country, the band’s second double album: in contrast with the raucous energy of Being There, it’s more muted and serious, filled with unadorned folk songs that are as lovely as they are heartbreaking. That’s classic country all right, but not the kind you’ll hear at Carol’s Pub on a Saturday night. Instead, Jeff Tweedy’s often surreal lyrics touch the brokenness of an era defined by standing six feet apart. On “The Universe” he delivers one of his most affecting vocal performances: “So talk to me / I don’t want to hear poetry,” he sings. “Just say it plain / Like how you really speak.” Much of this album feels less concerned with flashy musical chops or studio magic than it is with channeling that kind of intimate yearning. Maybe that’s why the first couple of spins are challenging—not because of any high-art musical vocabulary, but because of the quiet spaces and storytelling. The closest comparison from Wilco’s past is Mermaid Avenue, their 1998 collaborative album with Billy Bragg that set poetry by Woody Guthrie to new music. Postmodern shades of the departed folk singer appear on Cruel Country in the waltz “I Am My Mother” and the psychedelic couplets of “Ambulance.” Tweedy’s acoustic guitar drives the sound throughout, but Pat Sansone and Nels Cline (on electric guitars, lap steel, and Dobro) keep it country, especially on the shuffle “A Lifetime to Find” and the chunky Bakersfield-type rocker “Falling Apart (Right Now).” The majority of these 21 songs were recorded live with few overdubs, which won’t surprise you if you’ve heard their effortless feel and quiet pulse. Don’t expect major band breakaways, only tiny triumphs: you won’t find a finer instrumental than the second half of “Many Worlds,” while at the opposite extreme, “Sad Kind of Way” is perfect baroque pop. The cruelty in Cruel Country is also its comfort: however dark the songs travel, they shed light on relatable truths. On “Hearts Hard to Find,” Tweedy confronts the guilt of feeling nothing “when certain people die,” singing, “My heart’s hard to find / Sometimes.” For the Wilco fan accustomed to the reliable touring unit perfected over many years, from Mexico to Massachusetts, Cruel Country may be your personal prompt to slow down and rediscover your favorite band.
Wilco’s Cruel Country is available through their website.