A half-decade before Spotify was dreamt up and years before the ‘streaming’ of music entered the lexicon, Wilco did something remarkable and completely novel. On September 18, 2001, the Chicago band made their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, available to listen to for free on their website.
he decision had not been taken lightly. Jeff Tweedy and an assorted band of musicians had toiled on the album for the best part of a year and the sessions, which saw the departure of two members, were so fraught that it felt as though it would never be released.
It almost wasn’t. When Tweedy presented the finished copy to their record label, Reprise, the album was rejected. Here was one of America’s finest bands being told by a venerable label that the record was a massive disappointment and it wouldn’t be putting any of its resources into releasing or promoting it.
That was when Tweedy decided to throw caution to the wind and put it out online — in the hope that it would find an audience. Social media was still a long way away and Google was just three years in existence, so the guarantee that a large audience would discover it was not there.
But find it they did. Soon, word was emerging that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was an album that any serious music lover had to hear. The ears of executives at Nonesuch pricked up too and the label officially released the album on April 23, 2002. Ironically, Nonesuch and Reprise share the same parent record company, which led to suggestions — not fully accurate — that Warner Music had paid for the same album twice.
What’s not in doubt is the masterpiece that Wilco made despite, or perhaps because of, the chaos of its creation. But more of that later.
The album has been given the deluxe reissue treatment this month — a fascinating document that reveals how songs were developed from their demo state. But even without this new version, the album’s place in American alternative rock canon has been long assured.
It remains Tweedy’s greatest work in what has been a broad and prodigious career. And he has been confounding expectations from the start. As a founding member of Uncle Tupelo, the Illinois native had been at the forefront of the influential early ’90s movement that embraced both alternative rock and roots music that would come to be dubbed alt-country.
In his follow-up band, he was keen to experiment further. Wilco — short for ‘will comply’ — was the vehicle where his ambitious could be fully realised. And it was the recruitment of the former maths teacher Jay Bennett in 1996 that really pushed the band’s development.
Their sonic palate broadened over the course of three albums: AM, Being There and Summerteeth. The last of these, released to near universal acclaim in March 1999, still stuns with the sweep and glory of its songs, including fan favourite Via Chicago. The Windy City has long proved to be an inspiration for Tweedy and it certainly wends its way onto the album that would become Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
By the time the group convened in their Chicago loft studio-cum-rehearsal space in late 2000 to make it, Tweedy was determined to let his creativity run riot. Bennett was too, but trouble was brewing. Their desire to make songs daring and brilliant was matched by an unshakable belief that their way and their way only was the right one. Much of the legend of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is burnished in the fact that its creation was captured in Sam Jones’ fly-on-the-wall documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. The film, named after the album’s opening track, captures a band fracturing. The Los Angeles-based photographer thought he would be shooting a comparatively conventional making-of band movie, but as the problems mounted, he stayed until the money ran out to document it all, shooting 80 hours of footage.
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Jones’s film is something of a classic in its own right. Right from the off, we meet a band in crisis. Vulnerabilities are laid bare, disagreements are brutally exposed and hostilities are played out. Yet the inspiration to make a special album is ever present.
The changes came early. Drummer Ken Coomer was ousted in the first few weeks of recording, his place taken by percussionist Glenn Kotche, whose improvisational style veered more towards jazz than rock and was a perfect accompaniment to Tweedy’s unconventional ideas about songcraft.
Jim O’Rourke, the avant-garde Chicago musician and producer, was invited to help with the sessions — it was he who suggested Kotche to Tweedy — and while Bennett was initially supportive of O’Rourke’s input, he began to feel that his own contribution was being marginalised.
O’Rourke would play a significant role in helping to deconstruct songs like I Am Trying to Break Your Heart and reconstituting them as challenging, artful compositions.
That’s not to say that all tracks give convention a wide berth. Heavy Metal Drummer revels in its straight-up rock — it remains one of Wilco’s most played live songs — while the beautifully tender Jesus, Etc finds Tweedy at his poetic best. The strings that embellish the latter were arranged by Wilco’s bassist John Stirratt.
The initial plan was that the album would be released on September 11, 2001 — that notorious day in recent American history — and some have pointed out eerily prescient lyrics, not least on Jesus, Etc with its eye-catching lines “tall buildings shake” and “skyscrapers are scraping together.”
The New York Times nailed the album’s impact: “Yankee is a work of both granular intimacy and universal sweep: a record that sounds, uncannily, like being inside of someone else’s headache that also prefigured the widespread existential malaise that descended in the days and years after 9/11.”
Tweedy fired Bennett before the album was finished, insisting he could not work with him again. Revealing as Sam Jones’s documentary is, it’s perhaps unfair on Bennett, who comes across as somewhat stubborn and petulant. A more recent documentary, last year’s Where Are You, Jay Bennett?, attempts to offer a more rounded view of a musician who died of an accidental Fentanyl overdose aged 45 in 2009. His vital contribution to Wilco up to and including Yankee Hotel Foxtrot should not be discounted.
In the liner notes of the new boxset, Tweedy writes about what he was hoping to achieve on the album. “I was trying to put it in perspective for myself: how can there be all these good things that I love about America, alongside all of these things that I’m ashamed of? And that was an internal question, too; I think I felt that way about myself.”
The title, incidentally, came from an album that Tweedy was then obsessed with, The Conet Project, a compilation of eerie recordings from shortwave radio stations believed to be spy transmissions. One track features a woman’s voice droning “Yankee… hotel… foxtrot.”
The distinctive cover image depicts the towers of Marina City, one of Chicago’s architectural wonders, and designed by the renegade architect Bertrand Goldberg in 1959 and completed between 1964 and 1968. One of the city’s most photographed buildings, the stark black-and-white photo on the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot cover was taken by Sam Jones.
The deluxe edition of ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ is out now
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