With the benefit of hindsight, September 11th 2001 wouldn’t be the date you’d choose to drop your album. Wilco didn’t have the benefit of hindsight, and when Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy pencilled in a release date for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (YHF), September 11th was the one they chose.
YHF wasn’t released on September 11th though; in fact, it wasn’t until April 2002 that Wilco – without Jay Bennett – finally managed to produce a hard copy of what is widely considered to be their greatest album to date.
Frequent readers of this column will likely have grown bored of this, but I really can’t stress it enough - context is important, really important. Whilst, when assessing the worth of an album, stand-alone factors like musicality and lyricism are perhaps the greatest determiners of success, it’s the context in which it was created that provides that sense of timeless gravitas.
With this in mind, it’s important to consider the turmoil surrounding the birth of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Whilst the September 11th due date that never actually materialised serves as a somewhat macabre footnote, it wasn’t the only bump on the road to release. In a way, this album represented an act of defiance – when Wilco first approached Reprise Records with YHF the label rejected it, requesting a number of fairly major revisions. The band refused, and a legal and financial tussle ensued over the rights to the record, eventually culminating in Wilco streaming the whole thing for free on their website, until the rights for a physical release were secured by Nonesuch six months later.
But label power struggles only tell a fraction of the YHF story. Wilco rose from the ashes of frontman Jeff Tweedy’s previous project, Uncle Tupelo, which disintegrated as a result of a souring relationship between himself and fellow frontman Jay Farrar. Tweedy pieced together his new band from the cooperative fragments, notably bass player John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer. Nonetheless, Wilco has always essentially belonged to Tweedy, and given his creative grip, membership has been rather fluid, with significant personnel shake-ups being common over their 22-year history.
Indeed, one such shake-up goes some of the way to explaining why YHF is the best album Wilco have ever produced, or perhaps ever will. At the time, multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett played a pivotal role in crafting the musically scatty flow that runs between each track, to which he devoted considerable time and attention. However in Jeff Tweedy, Wilco have a frontman who fetishizes thematic big-picture production – each album they’ve created is dominated by his idiosyncratic brand of poetry. As a result, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Bennett’s attention to instrumental detail was a consistent source of irritation for Tweedy, and the subsequent friction between the pair led to Bennett’s exit from the group immediately prior to YHF’s physical release.
The YHF story is one of grudging cooperation between two brilliantly dysfunctional partners. Without Tweedy’s understated poetry there’s no Wilco, but without Bennett’s musical invention, there’s no Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Regarding the music itself, more unfamiliar readers will be left screaming: but what is YHF? I can only apologise – I feel neither qualified nor inclined to understand. Some say alt-country, others indie, experimental, or even punk. Genres have a tendency to vaguely mash together sounds and concepts until arriving at some sort of meaningless consensus. The truth is that is doesn’t really matter what YHF is – it’s beautiful, and entirely unique. It somehow captures that magical space between catchy accessibility and frenzied unpredictability. I can only encourage an open mind and patience – the more you listen, the more you’ll hear.
With that in mind, I feel compelled to end this article with an anecdote: I was walking back from Morrisons; it was Monday and I’d just received an email to tell me I’d had a job application rejected. I put down my shopping momentarily – my arms ached from the four pint milk I’d foolishly forgotten to double-bag – and turned on my iPod, trusting blindly in a casual shuffle.
Now Playing – Wilco, Ashes of American Flags.
As I picked up my milk and resolved to make my way home, I found myself completely lost. The piano refrain crawled on, and I was entirely transfixed by what I was hearing.
“All my lies are only wishes, I know I would die if I could come back new.”