Album of the Week: Wilco Schmilco

On September 6, 2016

Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend some time with. This week’s album is, Schmilco, the 10th album from a little band from Chicago called Wilco you may have heard of. It’s out this Friday.

Ageism isn’t just relegated to retired legendary Apple engineers trying to get jobs at an Apple store; it’s also present in every “Dad Rock” joke and every time someone says the Migos are better than the Beatles. Ageism is sometimes needed and actually kind of helpful; each new generation needs to push the older one off on their ice shove, because canons should be rewritten. Since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky Wilco have pretty firmly pegged as the indie rock answer to “dad rock,” a band that makes music for 41-year-olds who used to spend their weekends at shows, and now spend them at their son Blaze’s soccer games. Wilco really leaned into that genre definer circa last year’s Star Wars—a near Buzz Bin throwback that was the soundtrack to so many barbecues for dads last summer.

The title of their new album, Schmilco, leans into every easy “dad rock” Twitter joke you can make, but here’s the rub: Schmilco is a raw, emotional, almost entirely acoustic album filled with regret, remembrances of the horror of growing up, and the pain of letting go. It’s an album you could never expect a young band to make, or even attempt. Songs like this only come with the experience of living to see your memories and younger life recede into the distance. It simultaneously feels like the slightest Wilco album—its 12 songs clock only 36 minutes, and only one of them runs longer than four minutes—and the most emotionally frayed and resonant since A Ghost is Born.

Recorded with the same crew that made Star Wars, and recorded during the same sessions, it doesn’t take long to know Schmilco is hitting for a somber, back-through-the-looking-glass mood and subject. The first song is called “Normal American Kids” and it’s about not finding yourself in the expectations and assumptions of your childhood. Sure, people imagine you loved being a kid running around playing baseball in the summer heat—and your memory might trick you into thinking you did that stuff sometimes—but mostly you were hiding out in your bedroom. From there we get to songs like “Cry All Day,” “Shrug and Destroy,” and “Just Say Goodbye,” somber pieces about breakups, and letting go, and uh, crying all day.The album’s emotional centerpiece is “Happiness,” one of the finest songs in Wilco’s entire catalog. It’s all downstroked acoustic guitars, with Tweedy struggling with his mom’s place in how he deals with other people, and openly wondering about his mom’s body after she dies—he wonders what’s in her coffin since she donated her body to science. “So sad it’s nothing/ Happiness depends on who you blame,” Tweedy sings in the chorus here, bundling up years of psychoanalysis into 10 words. Don’t listen to it if you’ve been having a hard week; it’ll leave you wrecked.

It’s remarkable I made it this far without bringing up Harry Nilsson; obviously Schmilco is an homage to Nilsson’s landmark 1971 album, Nilsson Schmilsson. Harry called his album that—and appeared on the cover in a bathrobe refusing to look at the camera—because he was sick of being Harry Nilsson, sick of the expectations of his major label, sick of living with the tag of being the Beatles’ favorite group, and just wanted to make his music and put it out. He got the autonomy he wanted after it became a hit, and chased his muse around for a series of less and less commercially viable albums. After their well-publicized battles with their record label 15 years ago, Wilco fought for that same right—to make their music their way—and they’ve had the Nilsson experience since then. Schmilco is what comes next.

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Andrew Winistorfer

Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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