How I learned to love (or at least tolerate) Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

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Over time, I have had to face that fact that this album is far better than I’d once thought.

When I picked up Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — on the day it was released, this week back in 2002 — I really enjoyed it. I didn’t think it was anywhere near as groundbreaking or startling as the hype would have had me believe. Soon, I found that I simply could not listen to it anymore: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had worn out its welcome by being talked about everywhere as a huge groundbreaking moment that, frankly, simply wasn’t all that groundbreaking.

After subsequently digesting demos for the album, included on the Australian version’s bonus disc, I was finally able to see Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in a new light. Due to those demos, often very different in attitude and tempo than what was eventually released, I can now really appreciate what Yankee Hotel Foxtrot represents. I still think Wilco is far too caught up in playing with relatively tame electronic sounds. Most songs I continue to wish weren’t unadorned with the distracting backing noise because they, for the most part, came off as very amateurish.

I’ve listened to a great many truly groundbreaking electronic artists for years and the stuff Wilco attempted to pull off on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot simply sounded too tentative for them to really be successful. They didn’t convince me that the band had jumped head-and-feet into a more experimental mode, and instead said to me that they simply heard Radiohead’s Kid A and wanted to move in that direction, somehow — but with no real impetus.

Jim O’Rourke, no stranger to the eclectic and electronic, managed to mix Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in such a way that helps support some of the more spartan songs with the electronic accompaniment, but more often than not, the results sounded like they’d be much stronger without them at all. One of the reasons the demos worked so much better for me is that, while the sounds are indeed there, the song structures are slightly less attenuated by them — and so therefore rely more on the melodies of the band’s material.

While it is good music, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is nowhere near as shocking and/or strange as critics back then would have had you believe. But regardless of my nitpicking, I have to admit now that this is still a really good album. I should have recognized that my disinterest in it was more due to that overwhelming hype: I simply grew tired of hearing about Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, until I heard it a new way.

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