Wilco’s “Cruel Country” makes a modest first impression for a magnum opus. Its tone is naturalistic and understated; the album was recorded largely with Wilco playing live in the studio as a six-man band, quietly savoring the chance to make music together after pandemic isolation.
Most of the songs have a quietly strummed acoustic guitar at their core, basic and folky. The sonic experimentation that Wilco has enjoyed since its 2001 masterpiece, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” — which it recently performed at concerts in New York and its longtime hometown, Chicago, and plans to reissue in vastly expanded form in September — has been temporarily, though not entirely, cut back on “Cruel Country,” as if to set artifice aside.
“Talk to me/I don’t want to hear poetry,” Jeff Tweedy sings in “The Universe,” continuing, “Say it plain/I want to hear you speak.”
But “Cruel Country” is also a double album, a full 21 songs, that sets out to engage the notion of “country” as both a musical style and a nation. Tweedy’s songs ponder history, politics, mortality, ambivalence and the utility — or futility — of art in 21st-century America. They also, at times, blur distinctions between patriotism and romance. Yet in the album’s title song, Tweedy sets ambiguity aside as he sings, “I love my country like a little boy/Red, white and blue,” only to follow it with “I love my country, stupid and cruel.”
Wilco was a musical throwback when it got started in 1994. In a decade of grunge and hip-hop, it drew instead on a boomer trinity of the Band, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And now that the group itself has decades of its catalog behind it, “Cruel Country” also circles back to Wilco’s own past; the band used a similar hand-played, live-in-the-studio approach on its 2007 album, “Sky Blue Sky.” The country music that Wilco embraced on that album, and returns to through most of “Cruel Country,” has a particular vintage: the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were pushing country toward rock while bands like the Grateful Dead, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers were connecting three-chord country to psychedelia.
Half a century later on “Cruel Country,” the sound is even more nostalgic, though it still leaves room for exploration, especially in a handful of songs that open up into the kind of jams that Wilco extrapolates onstage. Trudging or shuffling along in mid-tempo, the songs can often sound serenely resigned. But there’s an underlying tension in the lyrics and in Tweedy’s scratchy, subdued, openly imperfect voice. He sounds weary but dogged, hanging in there like the music he clings to.
The album opens with “I Am My Mother,” a waltz about an immigrant’s hopes and roots: “Dangerous dreams have been detected at the southern border,” Tweedy sings. And in “Hints,” he contemplates a bitterly divided nation, urging, “Keep your hand in mine” but noting, “There is no middle when the other side/Would rather kill than compromise.”
The album juggles despair and persistence, gravity and humor. Wilco comes up with twangy, jaunty, chicken-pluck country in “Falling Apart (Right Now),” where Tweedy complains, to a partner or a populace, “Don’t you fall apart while I’m falling apart,” and in “A Lifetime to Find” — a conversation with Death, who arrives suddenly: “Here to collect.” And amid tinkly keyboard tones and teasing slide-guitar lines in “All Across the World,” Tweedy admits to the mixed emotions of being comfortable while others suffer — “I can barely stand knowing what’s true” — as he wonders, “What’s a song going to do?”
A song can only do so much, and on “Cruel Country” Wilco offers no grand lesson or master plan, only observations, feelings and enigmas. Many of the album’s best moments are wordless ones. “Bird Without a Tail/Base of My Skull” offers a free-associative string of nonsense couplets that’s like a nursery rhyme until it ends in a fatal stabbing; it turns into an intricately picked two-chord jam, with Glenn Kotche’s drumming providing whispery momentum as Tweedy and Nels Cline toss guitar ideas back and forth, then interlace them. It’s a brief stretch of communion and consolation in doleful times.