After posting my little video of Wilco and Feist performing ‘You and I’ on the Letterman show, I got to thinking last night about why it was that I found the new Wilco album so hard to get grips with. This was further compounded by the comments over on songbytoad on my monthly column about it not being very good and Wilco being on a downward slide. What really interests me about all this negativity is the positive critical response to the record. The Sunday Times, just yesterday, named it in their top 20 rock and pop records of 2009. It’s been nominated in the Best Americana Album category at the 52nd Grammy Awards along with the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams. So it’s definitely received critical acclaim. And after much thought on the subject, I think deservedly so. Sure, it’s no Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or Ghost Is Born but at no time does it set out to even attempt to emulate or recreate the feel or atmosphere of those records. Nor should it. Sky Blue Sky was a wonderful departure from those 2 records. An album all about quality song writing rather than worrying about recreating the sonic levels of noise that underpinned those previous recordings. An album which was written by a band who I think had at last settled in their skin. And Wilco The Album ultimately comes as a direct follow on from Sky Blue Sky, written and recorded by the same line up. Not something that can often be said about back to back Wilco records! Anyways, it’s more alt. country/Americana in feel than anything since AM but if you understand Wilco’s roots and background this really shouldn’t be a surprise. What really intrigues me most about all of this is that whilst the critics love the record, a fair number of folk I know, who previously loved Wilco, have been indifferent about both this record and Sky Blue Sky, including me. (Not Sky Blue Sky, but this record for sure).
But it’s not just Wilco. I’ve read a lot of reviews this year about follow up albums, or new albums by bands that people had previously loved, that just don’t seem to match up to people’s expectations. Ultimately, I think what we as music fans do is let our own personal expectations ruin a record before we’ve even given it a chance and let it breathe. Of course, we often do the opposite also, we over praise records because we love a band, or know a band, or just want to like a record. Often it’s too difficult to criticise something that you really, in your heart of hearts, long to love. But it happens in reverse more often I think.
Take the Builders and the Butchers new record ‘Salvation Is A Deep Dark Well’. I was new to those guys this year and fell in love with that record. Others I know though fell in love with them because of their previous record and dismissed the new one as disappointing or frustrating, something I just couldn’t understand. But then I was coming at them with fresh ears. No expectations. And this ultimately is a challenge in itself. To clear your mind of preconceived ideas as to what a record should sound like or more to the point what you want it to sound like. The Twilight Sad’s new record, though praised widely, was criticised for not being as good as the last or, by some, as disappointing in comparison to its predecessor. The same applies to The Felice Brothers and many others in 2009. So perhaps 2009 was the year of the disappointing follow up??! Or perhaps we are becoming more and more critical and expecting more and more from artists? I have certainly heard all too often this year people proclaiming disappointment with records, or saying that it’s not been a good year in terms of good albums, particularly follow up records. I don’t necessarily agree with the latter, but can completely understand the disappointment people feel when records by artists they love do not live up to their own personal expectations. We all do it. Ultimately though, this personal expectation can totally cloud your judgement as to what is actually good and what just doesn’t satisfy you personally. And there is a fine line between the two I think. As the liberal politician John Lubbock once said, “What we see depends mainly on what we look for”. I am going to keep that firmly in mind when listening to records in 2010.