Indie-alternative-rock darlings Wilco put out what could be categorized as a country album last Friday in Cruel Country, and it gives us a stripped-down America with all her sins on display. It’s an introspective take on country music, with indie musical influences and poetic lyrics.
Per NME, lead singer Jeff Tweedy said in a press release for the album that “There have been elements of country music in everything we’ve ever done,” though, “We’ve never been particularly comfortable with accepting that definition […] But now, having been around the block a few times, we’re finding it exhilarating to free ourselves within the form, and embrace the simple limitation of calling the music we’re making country.”
The band’s 12th album features a loose narrative, according to Tweedy, of the history of the United States. “It isn’t always direct and easy to spot, but there are flashes of clarity,” said Tweedy. “Simply put, people come and problems emerge. Worlds collide. It’s beautiful. And cruel.”
Wilco Releases a Country Album That Embraces Tradition at the Same Time That It Breaks All the Rules
Cruel Country opens with I Am My Mother, a steel guitar-heavy track that that speaks to growth. But, underneath, staying the same. “I can’t mend / every broken fence / I’m a new man / but I am still my mother,” goes the chorus. In the overall narrative, this song fits as a notion that sometimes we change, but deep in ourselves we are still our mothers; there’s a core part of ourselves that doesn’t change. Rolling Stone suggests the image of “immigrants on the Southern border and the paranoia they inspire in the morally feeble”; but I like to think “I Am My Mother” is a love song to heritage, culture, and things our mothers taught us. To be quite literal.
Cruel Country, the title track on the album, has that same Bob Dylan-esque folksy sound as “I Am My Mother”; but, lyrically it’s a not-so-subtle critique of America. “I love my country like a little boy / red, white, and blue / I love my country stupid and cruel / red, white, and blue,” the song opens. It’s a little on the nose, but the chorus picks up the thread of that double meaning and runs with it; “All you have to do is sing in the choir / Kill yourself every once in a while […] All you have to do is sing in the choir / Set yourself on fire every once in a while.” It’s that juxtaposition of self-destruction versus the angelic singing in the choir that makes this song something other than a blunt statement.
Hints gives us a mix of country music’s literal themes, but with liberal leanings, exploring two vastly different sides of the same coin. “There is no middle when the other side / Would rather kill than compromise,” Tweedy sings in the chorus. A strong statement, but one that resonates. It’s a testament to early American optimism, turned sour and drastic in the face of total divisiveness.
‘Cruel Country’ Blends What We Love About Both Indie and Country
Rolling Stone brings up the good point that country music is very often literal, but Wilco has never really been that. Cruel Country is a blending of indie lyricism, full of imagery and metaphor, with country music literalism; there are times when Jeff Tweedy spells it out for us, but often behind those clear statements, double meaning lurks. There’s surface meaning, which is usually all country music gets to; but, then, there’s deeper meaning, what I’m calling Wilco meaning.
Musically, the album is very Bob Dylan, very old-school, country-folk fusion. There’s a gentleness in the sound that lends itself to a summer afternoon spent reading in a hammock. It’s a stunning and enjoyable listen; one you can put on when you want background music but also when you’re looking for introspection and patriotically critical lyrics.