Cruel Country is, to be generous, a dicey proposal from the jump. 20 or so years after cranking out 3-5 (depending on one’s tastes) seminal slabs of modern indie roots rock, Jeff Tweedy has remained no less prolific if far more variable in album quality and consistency. And while I am a firm believer that a truly great artist’s missteps and false starts can be ultimately just as interesting as their triumphs, even Tweedy’s most ardent followers may be wondering if he has settled into the phase of his career where new records are more diversion that revelation, and singular tracks are more pleasant surprise than the norm.
It is through this lens that we approach Cruel Country, a 21-track double album that was largely recorded in single takes verse obsessed over and perfected by the famously fussy Tweedy. Such insistence on leaving nothing to chance has served the band well on records like Summerteeth and the inestimable Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a record that was always destined to loom large over any subsequent direction the band took. The fact that this sonic perfectionism led to inarguably the band’s most fruitful period cried out to a return to that process, but much like their peers Radiohead, who know a thing or two about redefining modern rock only to aimlessly follow their muse for 20 years and counting, Wilco prove with Cruel Country that they don’t have to make YHF 2.0 to make a wildly important and late career-defining record. Like its namesake US of A, Cruel Country simultaneously exhausts, frustrates, exhilarates and ultimately, offers the chance for redemption through contemplation.
Much like the States, to love Wilco without acknowledging that sometimes it’s not easy is the laziest, most disingenuous kind of patriotism/fandom. It is not a perfect record, nor is it a neat, tidy package, but it is the band’s most rewarding record since Yankee so famously raised the bar. When viewing Cruel Country in modern times, on first pass all the attention immediately jumps to the title track: “I love my country like a little boy / Red, white, and blue / I love my country, stupid and cruel / Red, white, and blue”. This unquestioning, jingoistic adoration is further reflected in the chorus (as much as any of these songs have a chorus): “All you have to do is sing in the choir / Kill yourself every once in a while / And sing in the choir with me” As noted above, most of the early analysis for this record has jumped to those couplets, particularly as our nation reckons for its soul in a wave of seemingly daily warlike gun violence in civilian spaces and a wholesale redefining of truth and subjective reality.
However, as profound and timely as those words are, they are a case of Tweedy operating with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel. Other tracks scattered throughout the record offer a more human, devastating look at the state of affairs in a sometimes-cruel society, and Tweedy as usual is at his best when taking the malaise down to the human level and leaving room for contemplation on the kind of environment that could allow for such desperation. Callbacks to a sort of quiet screaming out to the void litter the record –
“Please be wrong / About me /Being the one / Causing all your pain”
“I’ve been through hell / On my way to hell”
“The world is always on the brink / And love is dumber than you think”
“The best I can do /Is try to be happy for you / In a sad kind of way”
And, of course –
“I don’t mind / When certain people die / I can’t cry / I wonder why / I could lie and say / It makes me sad / There’s something wrong with me / Maybe I’m just bad.”
Despite the weight of the words, the loose, improvisational feel of the record makes these confessions feel real, not rehearsed or falsely dramatic. Tweedy knows there is no beauty without ugliness to compare it too, and the result of him cutting himself open to bleed so freely also gives us some of the prettiest songs of his career – a tall task when remembering this is the man who penned ‘Reservations’ and ‘She’s a Jar’, among so many others.
‘The Universe’, one of the band’s finest tracks put to record, finds Tweedy aching for realness and immediacy in the moment: “The universe / It’s the only place to be.” Over a gentle strum, Tweedy’s voice cracks the second time he pleads “So talk to me/ I don’t want to hear poetry/ Just say it plain/ Like how you really speak.” Across the 21 tracks, Tweedy gives us the authentic, unfettered version of himself; and sometimes it’s downright difficult to like. All he wants back is the same – dishonesty is at the heart of any relationship rot in this narrative. “Once I looked you in the eyes/ And I told you lies/ How I wish I could have treated you well/ I wish I had more than a story to tell” he laments on highlight ‘Story to Tell’, which would have fit right in on Anodyne or A.M.
Ultimately, it’s all there: the pain, the confessions, the redemption, the detached scorekeeping about modern society. Tweedy gives us every bit of him, and sometimes that can be ugly, or meandering, but here it’s a prerequisite for great art and a tentpole album that can’t help but inform our impressions of the albums that came before and will after. As Tweedy admits late in the record, “It takes a lifetime to find / A life like the life you had in mind.” Cruel Country is the story of an artist having gone to the brink, temporarily lost their way and then returned at their creative peak. It is nothing less than a canonical record in an already sterling catalogue.
Words by Ryan Self