Wilco: Cousin [Album Review]

dBpm Records [2023]

As a long-time fan of Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, I should probably acknowledge at the top that Cousin is not the rock record I was hoping for or expected. Talk around the band’s fanbase began suggesting as far back as 2018 that the Chicago based band, once labeled the “American Radiohead” (or was Radiohead the British Wilco?), was due to dig deep and deliver a more experimental rock album, one that lived up to the best-loved songs that found their way year after year into the band’s concert setlists. At shows this last decade the memorable highlights have been reliable showstoppers like arty rockers “The Art of Almost,” “Impossible Germany,” “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” “Bull Black Nova,” and “Handshake Drugs,” often featuring the guitars of Nels Cline and Pat Sansone joining Tweedy, and the pop rock gold of “Shot in the Arm” and “Heavy Metal Drummer,” and the reliable encore “Outtasite (Outta Mind).”

While it’s still obvious that it’s the same band here on their 13th album, for all the hype and anticipation surrounding this new Cate Le Bon produced effort, rarely do the added synths, stutter-beat drum effects, and noisy intrusions feel all that new or unusual for a band that’s been playing “Via Chicago” live for nearly 25 years. The 10-track album opens with the noisiest pop song of this bunch “Infinite Surprise,” but for all the bluster, the noise isn’t adding anything musically. The best bits are one of the more memorable of Tweedy’s vocal melodies, the textured horns, and the longing to make it right after he’s made the object of his affection cry. The surprise is that if we’re able to be our authentic selves with one another, “eye to eye,” we find that “it’s good to be alive” and it’s even “good to know we die,” perhaps because that means we don’t waste time.

Elsewhere, Tweedy’s singing often in the hushed intimate voice that dominated on his solo records, and even in two of the more accessible pop songs, “Levee” and “Evicted,” his tone remains confessional. On the first track, he wonders out loud if he should stay on his meds, which he rhymes with “said” and “instead,” before asking his beloved to “save me, again.” On the second, the album’s current single, he’s confident that he’s “never going to see you again,” and for some reason “I deserve it.” But “Evicted” does allow for some great ringing guitars to deliver a few brief thrills in the fills, but actual traditional guitar solos rarely make an appearance.

The title track does chug along on its track, and “A Bowl and a Pudding” builds from some tense acoustic guitar and piano interplay into a pop ballad that develops musically as if it’s taking us someplace, only to fade before we reach any recognizable destination. We feel Le Bon’s presence most on “Sunrise Ends,” with its stuttering piano tinkling and stop start rhythm in Glenn Kotche’s drumming, and here the synth and pedal steel guitar build nicely before the song’s sudden ending. There’s surely a time when less is more… but not so much this time.

“Pittsburgh” on the album’s back half, also seems to slog along at mid-tempo, which is standard here, where Tweedy who’s been a singer in a rock band for going on four decades says he’s “afraid to sing,” “strange as it seems, I’ve outlived my dreams.” At this point, I’m starting to wonder where is the guy who sang lustily on “We’ve Been Had,” and “The Long Cut” back in Uncle Tupelo, or even the guy who sang songs with his family on all those “Tweedy Show” Instagram performances?

“Ten Dead” attempts to take on mass shootings, but it’s more of a condemnation of way we’ve all reacted to this daily onslaught of violence and loss, so weary from the repetition that we barely notice if one more has died. “I’m tired when the day breaks/I’m tired when the day ends” describes so many of us, that it’s little wonder that we do so little to change this unacceptable situation. There’s a bit of that weariness in many of the songs delivered here, where the arrangements could have gone country as they did on the last album, but here they lean toward the pop world even if the song’s themselves, the basic instrumentation and guitar riffs, remain basically the same. Eight songs in, the acoustic folk rock of “Soldier Child” almost lightens the load and, ode to joy, we actually get a real guitar solo, however brief.

The set closes with “Meant To Be,” which saves the best pop hook for last, as Tweedy finally achieves the human connection that he’s longing for: “Holding our hearts together… our love is meant to be.” And all that positivity is set to a solid beat, and a bit of Beatlesque orchestration, suggesting that all is well that ends well. Wilco fans will find plenty to enjoy here on Cousin, and the handful of songs that will make it into live performances will no doubt find this able six-piece band delivering them so that they sound even better in person, a feat they’ve been pulling off for years. But if Wilco has another great rock album or two in them, we’re going to have to keep waiting.

“Evicted” / “Meant to Be” / “Cousin”

The Jayhawks / The Wallflowers / Cate Le Bon

Cruel Country (2022) / Ode To Joy (2019) / Schmilco (2016) / Star Wars (2015) / Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014 (2014)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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