Take something you learned as a whole unit and divide it into four acts. It changes; there are scenes within eras. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the sound of rain, of days that are grey and never break up. The smell of wet cigarettes. My red 70s ski parka and headphones with foam pads on them. The physical experience of vinyl versus that of CD.
When this record came out, in 2002, I was living in Portland, Oregon. I had a couple of other Wilco albums, and I thought they were great, but I wasn’t a superfan. To this day, I think I may like this record as an entity more than I like the band as an entity. I mean, I really loved this record.
In Portland, I walked everywhere. I didn’t have a car or a bike, and I hated the lack of agency that is the bus-riding experience. So I walked. From Southeast to downtown, to work. From downtown to the North side, to the park, wherever. Across bridges, always slick, and in nights alone. Music this impeccably produced is best delivered via headphones; I had a CD walkman and I would just put this on and go. I walked across that city three times over and back again to the bubbling, perfect beat of “Kamera,” smoking my last cigarettes and marveling at the stars above the Willamette River valley. The sky always cleared itself at night in Portland, while the days embodied the legendary clouded damp of the Northwest.
I lived by myself in a one-room studio apartment near Ladd’s Addition, and I liked to sneak out at night with a pair of scissors and cut roses from the numerous beautiful mini rose gardens that occupy the neighborhood’s lush and pristine traffic circles. I put the roses in empty beer bottles, one flower in each bottle, and placed them around my apartment in little fragrant six-pack clusters. There, inside, I listened to the vinyl version of this record, a gatefold double album so heavy it places the weight of all Jeff Tweedy’s words in your hands, so, so satisfying to hold.
The album is different in this format than when it’s continuous, on CD (the medium I assume it was written for). It feels both longer—time is drawn out by the act of the dividing—and more approachable. There are many entrances. Three songs on the first side. Only two on the fourth. You have to trouble yourself physically after each side, getting up off the floor where you lie with a cute drunken boy or moving from the tiny foldout desk where you sit, staring at the contours of the Portland’s imitation skyline down the sloping hill out the window. You have to get up and flip the record just as the reverie is building. It keeps you listening, very actively. It keeps you awake, and clothed, and just perfectly present in the moment of being 26 years old beneath a star-filled sky.
The six-packs of roses and the three-packs of songs.
The first triptych commences with “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” in which this band, this man, preemptively apologizes to me. The slow painful can’t-look-away build of almost-noise: easy-listening noise. A literal fade-up to begin a lament to regretted beginnings. “I assassin down the avenue” remains in my top 5 uses of nouns as verbs. The man can write a fucking lyric.
Then there’s “Kamera,” the bouncy strumming, almost groovy licking of an acoustic guitar with… is that, like, marimba?… percussion. The faint trickle of the electronic noise blips that crescendo’ed so intensely in the previous track all but disappears by the final three-chord resolution; all is back to pop. Again, a lyric concept of gold: I am a camera, I smashed your camera, life is a fishbowl and a fisheye and no it’s not okay. It sure it pretty sometimes, though.
Then I am offered, prematurely, a Radio Cure. This is one of my least favorite tracks on the album. It’s one moment (of several) where Jeff Tweedy veers from being the Great Rock And Roll Depressive with which the teenage bedroom-crier in all of us stands in solidarity, and becomes just another whiny white guy. Minimal production, a heartbeat, windy breezes of electrics, light sprinkle of fingerpicked riffs. Good, but somehow grating. Again with the fading up? You’re wearing your soundboard on your sleeve, guys. “Electronic, surgical words.” Yup. I get it; I heard that camera song just now, too. We are isolated and electronic and love is not understandable any more now, connected, than it was close up, in analog. But. Then the song quietly clears: A tinny piano played way up high on the keyboard solidifies behind a modest, almost jazzily voiced chorus. Pop, rock, and roll.
He’s trying, bless his heart.
At time it came out this album was lauded as being what happens when the Wilco boys get into “experimental” sounds. This is probably due to the presence of Jim O’Rourke as new band member. They also had a new drummer. Apparently there was lots of drama (as evidenced by the tag “Wilco is/was:” that precedes the band member listing on the record sleeve). But the band is still Wilco as far as I know, and so, to the experimental charge leveled at this record: Sure. It’s true. In the post-OK Computer rock landscape, electronic blips and harsh dissonance were just really starting to happen in a widespread way. It was new. But if you said this album is experimental to anyone who’s ever heard a John Zorn record, or even a John Coltrane record, they would be like, dude. C’mon. This is lullaby shit for people like Jim O’Rourke.
He’s trying, bless his heart, but Jeff Tweedy can’t not write a rock song. The country twangs of his earlier efforts, noisier attempts on subsequent records? Dude. C’mon. You are an American Rock Band. And that’s okay. Wilco is 17 years old. They would not be nearly as good an American rock band if they didn’t branch out of their comfort zone, try to evolve, unlike some longstanding rock bands. (I’m looking at you, U2.)
Listening now, it may be odd that I consider Yankee Hotel Foxtrot such an invocation of my visceral experience of Portland during the particular few months I was really into the album. Lyrically and sonically, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a city record. But it’s an urban, big-city record. Look at the cover, the undeniably Chicagoan pride the band projects. Hear the rough inserts of dissonant sounds that lie beneath every track like the ambient noise of a city outside a window. Portland is many things but urban, in the classic, tall-building-and-crowded-streets sense of the word, is not one of them. However, I had moved to that Northwestern outpost direct from the Lower East Side of New York City. I missed it. And perhaps in these songs, this album, I was latching on to the noise of that sentimentality. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is Portland for me, but it’s also Portland as the antithesis of city. Real city, East-of-here, big, dirty, anonymous city. The first place I ever assassined down an avenue, that urbane fuzz.
It slays me still.
Heavy Metal Drummer! Yay!