Outside of a town called Homer, NY, we put on the new Wilco album. "We" is me and three others, two of whom are Australian. We started playing together early this year. We’re aiming a rented Toyota minivan at Toronto, where we’ll play later tonight. Tomorrow we’ll drive this same highway, passing Homer in the other direction, smuggling only our hangovers and tinnitus back home.
But for now it’s a clear, beautiful fall afternoon—“Like driving through a facking painting,” says our singer, affecting an Outback Steakhouse accent—and we’re drinking coffees and listening to the curious opening track of The Whole Love. Fusion beat, dark string washes, a spooky (and very Thom Yorke-y) refrain: “Almost, almost.” After four minutes, it abruptly becomes an instrumental shredfest.
We pass a sign: BREAKFAST WITH SANTA.
Track three (and, as it turns out, many others) is symphonic soft-rock. “Sounds like a Beatles musical,” says our singer. Then the fourth track, “Dawned On Me,” dances out of the van’s speakers like a mid-90s REM (R.I.P.) single.
The album follows a gentle downward slope throughout its second half, the noisy guitars receding like the city we left this morning. No one talks for all twelve minutes of the closer, “One Sunday Morning,” which starts at a Leonard Cohen-worthy hush, drifts away for a while, and returns to its simple acoustic guitar theme at the end. I notice that my mouth is hanging open.
I don’t put too much stock in first impressions, especially for new music. I remember thinking OK Computer was a four-car-pile-up the first time I heard it. Albums should be lived with, their learning curves embraced and their deep cuts excavated. That said, whether there’s enough on The Whole Love to keep you coming back might depend on how much you already like Wilco. I’ve never been a huge fan—my favorite album is 1999’sSummerteeth, their glossiest and probably most uncharacteristic—so it’s likely that this, right here in the van, will be the last time I ever hear this album.
Which, considering all the stray moments that caught my ear and slackened my jaw, makes me a little sad for music. It’s so arbitrary what gets through to people. Tonight, we’ll play for an hour, making the total ratio of time spent driving to time spent performing 17:1. Our twenty audience members will buy a few CDs before leaving to make way for the perfumed club-goers and the DJ.
But that’s tomorrow.
Today, it’s leaf-turning season in the Finger Lakes, we're listening to bands we like, and the world's our oyster. Almost, almost.