Scratched Into Our Souls

Wilco – “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” | July 14, 2010

Watching Wilco’s I Am Trying To Break Your Heart documentary about the tumultuous experiences surrounding the creation and release of their undisputed 2002 masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot brought me back to my review that I wrote back in December 2009 for my “best records of the 2000s” list. For your reading enjoyment, here is that review. 

3. Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) – Jeff Tweedy and company fight their record company with this difficult album, their most sonically adventurous and lyrically poignant of their career.

Since the 1980s, the general (though extremely reductive) belief is that record companies are only in it for the money, and don’t actually care about making long-lasting art but instead are more interested in what’s in your wallet. I always try and give them the benefit of the doubt, since it seems silly to believe that these people work in the music industry and don’t actually care about music, and I understand the general human desire to, you know, put some food on the table for your family. But then a story comes along that just baffles even me, a story about the artist fighting for their art, believing in their own art, when the record company seems to only be interested in money. A story like this reinforces that binary of artist versus the record label, and makes for a helluva underdog story. It happened in 1981 with Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska record and his stubborn refusal to flesh out the songs any further than simple acoustic arrangements recorded in his apartment at the demands of Colombia, and it happened twenty years later in 2001 with Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Warner.

The story has been told a million times, so I’ll skip the fluff and present you with the essentials of the story. Wilco, hot on the heels of modest success with their critically acclaimed and fan-loved Summerteeth, were given a heaping pile of cash by their record label, Warner, to do what they would with. A few months later, the band presented the record label with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a masterpiece of American music and an absolutely perfect record. The record label’s response? It needed something else, it wasn’t commercial enough. And that’s fair, I think: if I were a record label executive, when I listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it doesn’t have a dollar sign on it, it doesn’t tell me how many copies it is going to sell. And for a record label, that’s a terrifying prospect. The band fought back, defended the album, and was released from Warner. They eventually resigned to Nonesuch, and released the record through them. It went on to be the most critically acclaimed record of 2002 and has sold more copies than any other Wilco album to this day.

As merely a fan of music and its potential to be high art, when I listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I hear a masterpiece. It’s an album about love, and it’s absolutely tumultuous and tense. The opening noise and eerily melodic percussion of the impeccably titled “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” are there to draw in your attention, as Wilco have never ever made something that sounds remotely like this. Lucky for us, it’s one of the album highlights, as Jeff Tweedy sings some of his best couplets ever, “I am an American aquarium drinker, I assassin down the avenue, I’m hiding out in the big city blinkin’, what was I thinkin’ when I let go of you?” The second song, “Kamera,” is an acoustic guitar driven pop song, featuring very personal lyrics from Tweedy about the nature of humans, “I need a camera to my eye, remindin’ which lies that I’ve been hidin’.” “Radio Cure” is a slow-burning song that sounds like something the Beatles would have made had they not broken up, and the song includes my single favorite lyric by Wilco ever: “Oh, distance has no way of making love understandable.” “War On War” sounds like an updated, modern day version of “Give Peace a Chance,” complete with a Lennon-esque melody. “Jesus, Etc.” is far and away the most popular song from the album, and features an elaborate arrangement and complex lyrics that reference 9/11, the state of music, and actually has nothing to do with Jesus or religion (“Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad sad songs tuned to chords”). “Ashes of American Flags” is a gorgeous, obtuse folk song that takes multiple listens to truly sink in, but acts as the album’s monolithic centerpiece. “Heavy Metal Drummer” begins a three-song suite of catchy, infectious pop tunes, the catchiest of which would have to be the guitar-frenzy of “I’m The Man Who Loves You.” “Pot Kettle Black” features some of Tweedy’s sweetest singing on the entire album as he sings, “it’s become so obvious that you are so oblivious to yourself.” The album ends with two absolutely stunning songs to close it out, with the jagged noise build-up of “Poor Places” eventually giving way to gentle acoustic strumming. As the album began with a 7 minute song, it ends with one, this time the slow-burning “Reservations,” a confessional love song that gets under my skin every-time I hear Tweedy desperately sing, “I’ve got reservations about so many thing…but not about you.”

Unfortunately for Warner, they should have never had reservations about wanting to release music as incredible as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Money? Fuck that – people needed to hear this, even if it was just given away.

Listen: Wilco – “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”


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    About Me: Chris Robinson

    A budding writer and avid music fan from Los Angeles, California, I am a recent graduate of Music History from UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music. I've written for the UCLA Daily Bruin, graduated valedictorian from high school, and enjoy many different types of music, from The Beatles to Beethoven, and everything in between. I wrote my senior thesis on lyrical misinterpretations in popular music, focusing on Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

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    All music posted on this blog is for sampling purposes only. If you like what you hear, support the artists. Go out and buy their music, attend their shows, and buy merchandise.

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