Sunday, December 29th, 2002
Ashes Of American Flags
So I get an email today from Garry about my year-end Best Of list, and to explain what made Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot so interesting to me. I gave it a fair bit of though, and elected to make it a blog entry instead of just an email reply.
First off, I’ve been a Wilco fan for about seven years now, since A.M.. I’ve been delighted to watch them evolve from the fairly straight alt.country pop band they were back then to their current status as arguably one of the best bands in the world (my biased opinion, but I’m certainly not alone in that estimation). Some have compared Wilco in 2002 to Radiohead in 1997, circa OK Computer – that is, a band at the peak of their creative powers. The point of this is that I have followed Wilco through their evolution and trust in their creative muse no matter where it might take them. They’re preaching to the choir.
However, with the media hoopla surrounding the release of YHF and all the accompanying dramatics and the appearance of the album at the tops of so many year-end lists, there’s a lot of people coming to the record with an attitude of, “Prove to me why you’re so great”. This is absolutely fair – Lord knows I approach most hyped-up bands I’m not familiar with in the same way. And in this sense, I feel for anyone who’d play YHF without knowing what to expect. This is not an accessible record, at least not on first listen. The songs are stripped down and skeletal, there’s almost no polish here at all. It’s not mixed like a convetional pop record – vocals are either buried or uncomfortably dry and upfront. There’s a pervasive sense of bleakness and heartache throughout the record, echoed in the music, lyrics, production… and it’ll either grab you by the heartstrings and never let go, or it won’t. Simple as that.
Beyond just the record, there were some additional circumstances that made YHF so special for me.
1) Walking down the southbound subway platform at Bloor Station just as a train had unloaded it’s human cargo during rush hour, the outro of “Poor Places” on the headphones. I was walking against traffic, watching the sea of commuters break around me and reassemble in my wake, the steady crescendo of noise and static in my ears, the detached voice intoning, “Yankee… Hotel… Foxtrot…” A moment of transcendence, a moment of clarity. Just a moment. I think of it every time I hear the song.
2) October 1, 2001, The Phoenix Concert Hall – barely three weeks after the attacks on New York City. The shock of it all still hasn’t worn off. I’ve had tickets to this show for probably over a month, and it thankfully hasn’t been cancelled as I’d expected it to… concerns about travelling, et cetera. The band had considered it, but elected to hit the road anyway, because what else were they were going to do? I think they’d been officially dropped by Reprise by this point, and had begun streaming the album for free off their website for a while now. I had a copy on mp3 since August or so.
Without getting into a full review of the show more than a year after the fact, I will detail the two moments that are burned into my cerebral cortex. First, about halfway through the set. “Ashes Of American Flags”. The title alone has an added poignancy now, but from the moment Jeff Tweedy plays that twisted, aching guitar riff, there was just an indescribable sense of release and catharsis. The desolation and just pure sadness conveyed during the reading of that song, I still can’t put into words. The closing solo, which was little more than Tweedy, eyes closed, spraying bursts of fuzzed-out noise, articulated how I’d been feeling for almost a month since I watched the Trade Center collapse on television. It was moments like that that remind me just how powerful music can be. The uniqueness of this was evidenced at their show this past April at Convocation Hall. “Ashes” was done on acoustic and while excellent, just didn’t send the same chills down my spine. Maybe that wound was just closed.
The second moment in the show was during the second or third encore – I don’t recall exactly – when they broke out Woody Guthrie’s “California Stars”, from the Mermaid Avenue album, and brought local boy and former Wilco sideman Bob Egan on stage to play guitar. If “Ashes” was the agony, then “California Stars” was the ecstasy – it was ebullient, healing, redeeming. We had been rent asunder but were being put back together. It was an affirmation that we could get back up and continue.
This is what I got out of the record, the music, this ‘year of Wilco’. This is why it’s not only my favorite record of the year, but one of my favorites ever. The records that people remember and treasure are the ones that mark a certain point in their lives, the ones that resonate with the events that made them who they are.
It’s like that old Chinese blessing/curse – “May you live in interesting times”. This has been an interesting year for me, on both sides of the coin, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has been the soundtrack.
np – Wilco / Yankee Hotel Foxtrot