Wilco Sounds Better in the City

Wilco Sounds Better in the City

I can't walk past the Marina Towers in downtown Chicago without the opening snares of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" throbbing into my head.

Wilco have made quite a discography for themselves over the years, from the yearning alt-country of Being There to the shimmering pop constructions heard on Summerteeth. Admittedly their later work, while still pleasantly infused with classic Tweedy charm, has trouble sticking to the inside of my head. But they've never made anything quite like their mangum opus, back when they broke into the millennium with the subtle gorgeousness of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

It took me time to get inside Yankee. There's not very much that's immediately arresting about it—some gentle melodies and shiny production, sure, but nothing like the hooks on Summerteeth that get their claws in you as soon as they reach your eardrum. Yankee takes patience, takes a willingness to sit down with it, to let it slide around your head as you ride the train to work. It doesn't open up easily. It needs a slow kind of care. 

I didn't give the record the attention it deserved until I moved to Chicago. I had listened to it before, sure, but could never quite hear it. It may be that it's impossible to give Yankee its due diligence without the ambiance of its birth city. Each song plays like an avenue in the Loop: lonely, spacious and filled with indecipherable echoes. Upon each listen, with each new set of headphones, the album reveals more tiny secrets, like how you notice new grafitti every time you walk to the corner store. 

It's an album wrapped up in architecture. As tall as it's wide, it aches up to prod the orange clouds alongside the Hancock and the Sears Tower. Airy production swirls around Jeff Tweedy's deadpan sadness. Even at its catchiest, during the glockenspiel-tinged bridge of "Radio Cure" or the softly upbeat chorus of "Heavy Metal Drummer," the record insists on an impenetrable melancholy. It's a deceptively thick work, as intricate and cobbled as the towers on its cover. 

With Yankee, Wilco engage with what differentiates Chicago from the other stateside metropolises. Exploring the Second City feels nothing like navigating the tight urban knot of New York or Boston's organically tangled streets. Downtown Chicago looks like a city built for giants, with its sprawling sidewalks and unapologetically tall buildings. The further out from the Loop you go, the stranger, emptier, and more beautiful the city gets. Pockets of urban life spring up between stretches of industrial wasteland. It's huge enough that you feel as though you'll never unearth it all.

At the record's climax, "Poor Places" burns out into haze as a spy-radio monotone chants the album's name. There's a sense of grasping at something lost forever as we settle into the final, cautiously optimistic "Reservations." I think of riding the El at night, seeing the open windows of apartments slip by, catching scenes from other people's lives for a second before they're gone. I see the patterns made by the lit windows of high rises at 3 in the morning. More than any other album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is permanently embedded in the Chicago landscape for me. It is so tied into the feeling of the city's geography that it sounds different, loses something, when I hear it anywhere else.