Book Review: “Wilco: Sunken Treasure”

wilco-bookIn the 21 years since A.M. was released, Wilco have been the subject of an enormous amount of attention from music critics. I know of no other active American rock band that inspires so many passionate and ongoing debates amongst both fans and critics. On a music forum that I sometimes read, threads ostensibly dedicated to discussing a single Wilco album invariably degenerate into debates about the band’s entire discography, the contributions of Wilco’s various past and present members, and the admittedly tumultuous first ten years of the band’s existence.

I don’t know how I feel about this. On one hand, I like discussing music as much as the next person, and sometimes these debates among fans and critics even reveal an interesting tidbit. And I guess the band itself can feel proud that their music generates lively discussions at every turn; it’s a sign that the band is moving forward in their creativity, rather than resting on their laurels.

But on the other hand, I sometimes find these debates tiresome. While reappraisals are sometimes warranted in music, I’m not someone who wants to endlessly retread the narratives that surround Wilco’s past albums. Invariably, fans who do this fixate on conflict. Some fans take too much glee in dredging it up, even when it’s obvious that the artists in question have moved on, grown up, and now hold different views. Seventeen years on, do we really need another discussion of whether the baroque pop ambitions of Summerteeth belonged more to Tweedy or to Bennett? Isn’t it sufficient to say that it was a team effort? Another downside of these discussions is that they tend to pit one era of Wilco’s career against another, rather than striving to recognize the creative spark that burns beneath each one of their releases.

With the release of Wilco’s tenth studio album, Schmilco, earlier this month, a whole new round of thinkpieces were generated, including some that, under the guise of “contextualizing,” sought to rehash the band’s early internal conflicts rather than understand their current output (others were better).

This is the paradox of being a critically adored band: every move you make is closely scrutinized. I recall a Wilco interview several years ago, during the promotional cycle for The Whole Love, when a journalist said to Tweedy, “The critics really love your band, eh?” To which a mildly exasperated Tweedy replied with something along the lines of, “Love us? I feel like they give us a really hard time about everything.” After reading many thinkpieces about Wilco, I can certainly see his point. Tough love is, in reality, often indistinguishable from plain old hard knocks.

So it was with mixed feelings that I picked up Tim Grierson’s book, Wilco: Sunken Treasure (2013). One of two books written on Wilco — the other being Chicago journalist Greg Kot’s Learning How to Die (2004) — Grierson’s has the advantage of being considerably newer, yet also the disadvantage of having no access to the band members themselves. However, Grierson demonstrates that he understands the band quite well, and his interviews of people around the band (engineers, producers, etc.) are in many ways more revealing. Lack of access to the band isn’t necessarily a weakness, just as band access doesn’t guarantee of a great book.

Grierson, who is best known as a film critic, begins by noting that, in the aftermath of Uncle Tupelo breakup, he was initially more enamored with Jay Farrar’s Son Volt than he was with Tweedy’s Wilco. In the long run, this skeptical stance proves to be a strength. Grierson knows firsthand what it’s like to not entirely “get” the band’s appeal, but as someone who’s gradually come to appreciate them, he also knows what it’s like to be won over by a great album or song.

The book has a straightforward layout, with one chapter devoted to each album (with the exception of the Mermaid Avenue releases, which are combined into one chapter). I’m a pretty big Wilco fan, but I learned plenty from reading this book. It was great to read about Wilco’s recording sessions in chronological order. For instance, I didn’t know that the band recorded some of Mermaid Avenue in Dublin, nor that, due to the well-documented label troubles surrounding Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the band started recording A Ghost is Born before its predecessor had even been released. Jim O’Rourke is interviewed quite a bit, and he comes off as a real character. For instance, he claims that he “doesn’t like musicians,” and that after his mix of Sky Blue Sky was scrapped, he never bothered to hear the alternate mix of the album that was released.

After finishing each chapter, I listened to the album in question, and found that Grierson had given me a slightly different perspective on the familiar music I was hearing. I think that’s a good sign.  But the book’s greatest strength isn’t a particular chapter or anecdote. Instead, it’s Grierson’s general understanding of Tweedy’s personality and creativity, and approach to songwriting. Grierson doesn’t gloss over the conflict in the band’s early career, yet neither does he dwell on it too much. He also avoids downplaying Tweedy’s contributions in Uncle Tupelo, while still appreciating how large Farrar’s creative vision loomed. Grierson also strikes a nice balance when evaluating Jay Bennett’s role in Wilco’s success.

With two Wilco studio albums released since this book was published, as well as the Tweedy side project Sukierae and the Alpha Mike Foxtrot vault retrospective, it would be great if Grierson could one day include these releases in the book’s narrative to better reveal the contours of the band’s later career. But as it stands, Wilco: Sunken Treasure is a well-researched and engaging read for any Wilco fan.

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