I’ve got reservations about so many things, but not about my appreciation for Wilco’s complicated 2001 milestone
When Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released 20 years ago today, I think most of us can agree how much of a comfort this album was for a nation healing from the tragedy that transpired the previous Tuesday in September 2001.
Now, 20 years later, my appreciation for YHF has become more complicated, given the knowledge of how the late Jay Bennett was treated by the band during its creation and the flood of hipster posers who all of a sudden became Wilco fans because Pitchfork told them to. It was hard for me to muddle through the hype of that period in the context of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot without vomiting in my mouth a little.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
But as I sit here right now getting lost in the Jim O’Rourke treated coda to the album’s final cut “Reservations,” my only thoughts are of gratitude for a band I began listening to the moment Nic Harcourt handed me a promo of AM when I was interning at Radio Woodstock 100.1 WDST in the spring of 1995. It almost feels like 11th grade and seeing all the high school jocks discovering R.E.M. after “Losing My Religion” cracked the Top 10. But like the Williamsburg version of that lol.
Its important to note that the actual physical version of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot wasn’t officially released until April 23, 2002 following Wilco’s signing to Nonesuch Records after another Warner Music-owned imprint, Reprise Records, rejected it because it didn’t sound like Summerteeth or whatever. It turned out to be their bestselling album, peaking at no. 13 on the Billboard 200. On September 18, 2001, however, the band made the album available as a download on their longtime website Wilcoworld, making them one of the first significant bands to “surprise drop” their new album online.
VIDEO: Film trailer for I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco
It should also be noted that this is also the last time we ever heard the genius of Jay Bennett grace a Wilco record. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the Nels Cline era, especially Sky Blue Sky and the underrated Schmilco. But I wish Jay and Tweedy found a way to reconcile and record more music again. Could you imagine what A Ghost Is Born might have sounded like with Bennett still in the band? And while its predominantly the shadow of O’Rourke that looms largest over the sonic landscape of YHT, instances of Bennett’s pop brilliance radiate through the frequencies on such tracks as “Jesus Etc.” and “Heavy Metal Drummer.” You should also treat yourself to Bennett’s mix of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”. Actually, hunt down the Engineer Mixes for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to really feel how much the presence of Bennett brought to the table.
I’m grateful that this music on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is powerful and moving enough to cut through all of the hipster hyperbole I’ve been seeing across my feed so far this weekend. For an album that wasn’t recorded with any kind of foresight of the history-shaking events that it followed, going back to songs like “Radio Cure,” “Ashes of American Flags” and “Poor Places” harbor this doleful static energy that, when paired with Jeff Tweedy’s wizardry as a songwriter and melody maker, warms the soul all over again.
Just make sure you listen to some of Jay Bennett’s outstanding, using solo work all the same, yeah?
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