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May 18, 2007

Shortcuts—Wilco's Sky Blue Sky

Change is good. For musicians, change and experimentation are not only good but also necessary. Jeff Tweedy has never been fully satisfied with his previous work. And why should he be? All great artists sustain their careers by exploring different creative avenues. On Sky Blue Sky, the latest release from Wilco, the band makes some nice sounds, breaking new ground without traveling down the road already taken.

Sky Blue Sky lacks both the innovative sound of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the experimentation of A Ghost is Born. While the album is for the most part a solid and enjoyable listen, I, for one, expect more from Wilco. Songs like “Impossible Germany,” “Walken,” and the title track are the highlights of the album, but the ambitious depth often and rightfully associated with Tweedy is absent.

Sky Blue Sky feels like an odd collection of outtakes from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 1996’s Being There. One should remember that outtakes are left off final products for legitimate reasons. Although the album occasionally hints at the brilliance of Wilco’s past, it is not a bridge or a missing link in the storied discography of the band. Such labels imply that this album was necessary to the band’s evolution; instead, when compared with Being There, it seems rather derivative.

An album like Sky Blue Sky should not have come so early in Wilco’s career. They need to take more risks before they can return to their roots. The band would have done better to place the album in a vault for another decade. Time is the only thing that can save it.

If Tweedy is really supposed to be the next Neil Young, he should have taken a cue from Young’s career when it comes to change. Young, while often experimental and anxious, returned to his basic sound often. However, the sequel to Young’s landmark 1972 Harvest, Harvest Moon was released 20 years later.

A return to the band’s musical unpredictability should be all that is predictable about what comes after Sky Blue Sky.