The largely forgotten and much-maligned debut LP from the Chicagoland heroes was not everyone’s cuppa back in 1995
Let us save a few bitter tears for the cruel fate of poor, poor A.M., Wilco’s largely forgotten and much-maligned debut LP, released twenty-five years ago this March.
Nowhere near the ruinous disaster its retrospective reputation paints it as (in light of Wilco’s later-career triumphs and masterpieces), A.M. remains a remarkably fun and enjoyable mid-nineties alt-country collection, largely indistinguishable from others of its time and place but certainly not egregiously, offensively bad.
Though no one would call A.M. anything near the ‘best’ Wilco album, on its own merits the album is the definition of ‘fine’, a perfectly-capable debut album from a band still finding its clumsy footing, an album doomed to a poor reputation due to impossible fan and critical expectations. A.M. is slight and unassuming, sure, but from any other musicians that weren’t previously members of beloved St. Louis-area scrappers Uncle Tupelo, it may have seen more critical and commercial favor. It’s an album best-viewed outside of the context of its creators’ future masterpieces, and one best appreciated beyond the aftermath of its legendary parent-band’s demise. Rushed, unsure, cringing, A.M. is still ultimately forgivable, even likable, and I’d still grab it most days to listen to over Wilco’s last few albums of diminishing returns.
Uncle Tupelo were the quintessential ‘band that could’ve been huge’, but nonetheless became one that dramatically imploded due to the creative tug-of-war between its primary songsmiths, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. When the disheartened cult of Tupelo true believers caught wind of the two projects soon emerging from Tupelo’s collapse (Wilco, headed by Tweedy, and Son Volt, captained by Farrar), the smart money was on Farrar for soaring post-Tupelo success. Farrar had the hard-luck image, the gravel-and-whiskey-throated singing voice, and the proven lyrical chops. Tweedy, though he had contributed his own bonafide classics to his previous band’s canon, was seen as, well, the bassist.
While that may have compelled many under-appreciated musicians to channel their pain into cathartic, searing works of brilliance, it would take Tweedy a few more years (and a few more albums) to shake Farrar’s ghost from his system and finally stand on his own two creative feet.
Meanwhile, albums like A.M. came off as more than a bit reactionary. While Son Volt cruised to early critical (and mild commercial) success, A.M. was written off as rote and underwhelming, and sank out of sight and discussion soon after release. As Wilco climbed out of this considerable perceptive pit to become one of America’s most legendary art-rock institutions with later albums such as Summerteeth and sonic opus Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A.M. has been all-but-erased from the Wilco story. While the album still comes across as much too safe and tentative to warrant it any critical re-evaluation, the fact is, by any other band, this would be a fine, if not exceedingly special, collection of songs.
If any of the Tupelo faithful were expecting bold new creative risks from A.M., instead they found much of the sA.M.e old alt-country crooning, albeit delivered in an explicitly bitter and autobiographical fashion by the still-wounded Tweedy, who seemed always fated to play Lou Barlow to Farrar’s J. Mascis. ‘Box Full Of Letters’ and ‘I Must Be High are musically-upbeat poison pills aimed in Farrar’s direction, but in other moments A.M. achieves an awkward sort of grace that foreshadows Tweedy’s later development as a mature songwriter and lyricist. ‘Dash 7’ is the heartbreakingly-gorgeous ballad of the album, ringed in moaning steel guitar and cavernous reverb, both spare and haunting. ‘That’s Not The Issue’ gallops along at a familiar bluegrass-banjo pace, while “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed” tracks as the lost hit song it could’ve been from another act, a 90s folk-rock crossover smash that never was. Bassist John Stirratt, in 2020 the only non-Tweedy original member of Wilco left standing, is given a rare vocal turn on the achingly bittersweet ‘It’s Just That Simple’, and guest guitarist Brian Henneman of The Bottle Rockets brings Stones-like lead sass to the seasick folly of ‘Casino Queen’.
If A.M. truly stumbles at all, it’s in the more humorous asides of throwaways like ‘Passenger Side’ and ‘I Thought I Held You’. Tweedy would unearth more eloquent expressions of heartache and inebriation on future releases, but here the sly ‘wink-and-nudge’ suits his sentiments poorly, like an ill-fitting suit. Wilco is rightly adored by many, but nobody comes to Jeff Tweedy for humorous observational trifles.
VIDEO: Wilco “Casino Queen”
At a tight forty-four minutes of bleary cornpone posing and some genuinely-touching lyrical moments, A.M. ultimately asks for very little from the listener, which is perhaps its greatest sin, especially when compared to the more avant, demanding works that followed (namely Foxtrot and its followup, A Ghost Is Born). By the time of A.M.’s unheralded reception, Wilco were already hurrying towards Being There, their double 1996 follow-up that is the very definition of ‘transitional record’, trapped between Tweedy’s growing artistic skill as musician and songwriter and the easy country-rock moves of A.M. and Tupelo.
So yes, it’s fair to say that A.M. is no one’s idea of the best or most typical of Wilco’s albums. Still, it may be impossible to understand Wilco’s history as a band without considering its strengths and failings, a baby bird struggling to leave its nest and find its own sky blue sky above.