Analogue Music | Wilco Saves Lives

Wilco Saves Lives

By George Welty

I first heard of Wilco by not hearing about Wilco at all.

Somewhere around 1996, my brother-in-law Anthony was playing some music in the car I had never heard. The following is a revised transcript of the conversation:

Me: This is great! Who is this?
Anthony: Brother Tupelo.
Me: Is this country music?
Anthony: Kind of, but not really.
Me: Either way, I’m going to see them in concert.
Anthony: Er, I have some bad news. They just broke up.
Me: Dang it!

Going forward, I didn’t think much about them. Why invest in a band that had just broken up? Cut to five years later, and someone gave me a bootleg copy of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I cried the first time I listened to it.

It was everything I had been and everything I needed. Not since Pearl Jam’s Ten had I listened to an album that changed my life quite like this one. The lyrics were poetic and complex, the music disconcertingly catchy, and the overall vibe of the album opened me up to understand what I was going through at the time. At 32 years old, with a two-year-old son and a recent career change, I was muddling through trying to understand the dual pull of childhood calling me back to what I was, and adulthood pulling me into something different. In other words, I was having a difficult time growing up.

“Heavy Metal Drummer” sent me back into the longings of my past. “War on War” called me deeper into my future, reminding me, “You have to learn how to die, if you want to want to be alive.” “Jesus, etc.” spoke to my inadequate expressions of love for my wife and son. I could go on. It was a game changer.

​"It’s not that they saved my life once, but that there have been countless little salvations of my soul when just the right lyric mixed with just the right music hit me at just the right time."

It wasn’t until after I was already humming the songs to myself that I heard about the difficulties of getting that album out to the world. You can look it up on Wikipedia, but long story short, apparently some music executives didn’t think one of the most important albums of the last 20 years was good enough to release. The music industry is… well, never mind.

I listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot so many times, I wore out the CD. I had to go buy a real copy when it was finally released.

A couple years later, A Ghost is Born came out. It was melancholy and eerie. The musical interludes were a little too long for comfort. Sometimes it felt like a soundtrack to an acid trip. I liked it immediately. It was like the band found a way to be critically and commercially successful, while thumbing their nose at the idea of critical and commercial success. And while it didn’t impact me like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had, there was a raw vulnerability and transparency to the music and lyrics that drew me in over time.

Some of my favorites from this album were “Wishful Thinking” and “At Least That’s What You Said”. Even now, I will listen to “Theologians” to remind myself that churchy conversations don’t always have the answers to the deep longings of the soul.

After A Ghost is Born, I was pretty hit-and-miss on Wilco. I listened to Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album) a few times, but nothing really stuck. Pretty soon I was out on Wilco altogether. I listened to them once in a while, but I didn’t think I needed Wilco anymore. I had grown up, I guess.

Credit: Annabel Mehran

Also, I was wrong. About three years ago I went through another traumatic season. My anxiety ramped up to previously unattained levels. I was a mess, and almost no music was speaking to me at the time. Like the prodigal, I returned to Wilco, and they were there to greet me warmly. I not only revisited Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, I rediscovered their entire discography.

I went back and listened to “Being There” and asked myself why I would want to live in this world more than once. I listened to Sumerteeth’s “She’s a Jar” and it spoke directly to how I felt like my struggles were a lock with no combination. “You and I” on Wilco (The Album) reminded me of the community I had living in my own house, and how we could face anything. I could go on. I realized the feeling I first felt while listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had become universal to my experience with the band. They spoke and continue to speak into my deepest plummets, while drawing me up to healthier places. Their lyrics speak to my worst fears and my heart’s longings. Their sonic authenticity imbues me with courage to be myself.

So now it’s 2019. I’m in a much better place, and last month Wilco released Ode to Joy. This album is less percussive, more acoustic, and infinitely less depressing. While still dealing with uncomfortable truths and the realities of our culture, this album is quietly optimistic, even joyful—yet it’s a joy that is not easily won. It feels like Wilco has been through all the tough times and come out on the other side. This album is an ode to hard-fought joy. That is their story. That is my story. Once again, this album hits me where I’ve been and where I’m going. It climaxes in the anthemic “Love is Everywhere (Beware).” And it is.

If you haven’t caught on, Analogue Music is dedicated to writing about music we love. It’s not as much for the music critics as it is the music lovers. And, I love Wilco. It’s not that they saved my life once, but that there have been countless little salvations of my soul when just the right lyric mixed with just the right music hit me at just the right time. So many times, Wilco has made me feel a certain way exactly when I needed to feel that way. I have a friend who says, “Don’t let yourself talk to you. You talk to yourself.“ It is his way of saying we are in absolute control of our own inner voice. Sometimes, I’m not sure I believe him. It occurs to me that when I have a difficult time managing my inner voice and I am headed towards the emotional cliff, it is Wilco that steps in and tells me what I need to hear. They bring me back. They talk me off the edge. They save me.