Looking back on a 21st Century rock classic upon its expansion as a massive deluxe box set
Certain albums take on a special significance that goes well beyond the music they share.
Sgt. Pepper was one of those, a major change in pop’s trajectory. The Who’s Tommy was another. Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country Western provide a crossover no one deemed imaginable. The Velvet Underground, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, and Grateful Dead shared the same. These were efforts that not only produced notable music, but literally seemed to change the trajectory of both the artists and the era, elevating it all to an elevated plateau of cultural importance that eventually affected the whole trajectory of modern music.
Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot may not have risen to the heights of the aforementioned albums, but when it was finally released officially on April 23, 2002, it offered an implication that something especially notable had in fact transpired. Having risen from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco achieved notoriety early on as one of the pioneers of arch Americana and helped lay a musical progression that’s evolving even today. That said, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot provided an upturn in the roots rock motif by adding unexpected elements of experimentation and a pointed perspective that hinted at bigger truths and the pursuit of other possibilities. In practical terms, it carried a number of consequential implications.
For one, it found them severing their relationship with Reprise Records and their eventual bond with a Time Warner/AOL subsidiary Nonesuch. However, that wasn’t before the band streamed the heretofore unreleased album in its entirety on their website, an unprecedented move that might have impeded its sales had it not exceeded all artistic expectations.
Indeed, the album was originally scheduled for release on September 11, 2001, but obvious delays due to the events of that day and the fact the group had yet to land a label interfered with that plan.
The making of the album also led to a shake-up within the core of the band itself. Guitarist Jay Bennett was dismissed over philosophical differences with de facto leader Jeff Tweedy. Drummer Ken Coomer also left after failing to achieve the percussive effects Tweedy had aimed for. That left only Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt from the original fold, with new drummer Glenn Kotche coming on board to add a significant new sound to the group’s traditional template.
The new musical palette that resulted marked a significant change in the band’s MO. The rustic trappings that defined Wilco’s early progression at the helm of the new alt-Americana movement were supplanted by a sound that was heavy on subterfuge, electronica and special effects. The melodies were frequently blurred by studio sorcery and given an eerie presence and prominence. Opening track, the provocatively titled “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” offered the initial indication, given that Tweedy’s weary vocal was underscored by percussive clatter and an unusual atmospheric ambiance. Two tracks from the disc — “War on War” and “Ashes of American Flags” (the latter of which contains the line “I would like to salute the ashes of American flags”) were thought by some to refer to the events of 9/11, although the album was obviously completed well before that tragedy transpired. So too, the song “Jesus, Etc.” boasts the lyric, ”Tall buildings shake, Voices escape singing sad sad songs … Voices whine, skyscrapers are scraping together, your voice is smoking.”
Ultimately, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would garner Wilco the best reviews of its collective career, not only as one of the most significant albums of the new millennium, but also as one of the stand-out recordings of all time. Not surprisingly then, an expanded box set is due for release on September 16. Seven special editions will be released, including a Super Deluxe version made up of eleven vinyl albums and a CD. Demos, early drafts, and instrumentals, all charting the making of the album, plus a live 2002 concert recording and a September 2001 radio performance and interview, will be scattered among the 82 unreleased tracks, along with a book containing heretofore unreleased photographs from the sessions.
Clearly, this Hotel has room to accommodate plenty of future patrons.