There are protest songs that rage with righteous fury. Then there are protest songs that simply gesture at the headlines, powerless and numb. “Ten Dead,” a glassy-eyed track on Wilco’s Cousin, is the latter. Counting up the casualties, Jeff Tweedy decries the normalization of mass shootings: “Turn on the radio, this is what they said/No more, no more, no more than ten dead,” he murmurs as Nels Cline’s nimble jazz chords surround and console him. Tweedy sounds more weary than outraged (“Ten more, 11 more/What’s one more to me?”) as a dust cloud of guitars commandeers the final minute. Isn’t that the point, though? It’s hard not to feel more weary than outraged when hearing about another massacre. The song, to its credit, indicts its own shrug.
This is Wilco in their 30th year: more overtly political than ever—recall the double entendre of last year’s long-winded Cruel Country, with its patriot-baiting title track—yet musically more introverted. Channeling weariness is what Wilco do best these days, and on the refreshingly compact, fitfully surprising Cousin, weariness and uncertainty abound, elicited by violence, family (“Cousin”), and interpersonal relationships (“A Bowl and a Pudding”). After flirting with a youthful twang on Cruel Country, Tweedy scarcely raises his voice above a concerned hum. It’s a muted album about searching for connection amid decay, though it flickers to life on several tunes that hint at the controlled chaos of the much-mythologized Yankee Hotel Foxtrot/A Ghost Is Born era.
Much as those albums benefited from the input of an experimental interlocutor (the great Jim O’Rourke), this one shakes up Wilco’s inner circle with outside producer Cate Le Bon, the Welsh songwriter, who squeezes some blood and guts out of these arrangements: the turbulent build-up in “Ten Dead,” the splattery organ groans that enhance the dirge-like “Pittsburgh.” During the recording process, Le Bon favored multitrack complexity over the live-in-the-studio approach of Cruel Country and encouraged the band to take more risks. That comes through on opener “Infinite Surprise,” which instantly feels like the most daring Wilco track this side of “Art of Almost.” Tweedy’s mantra-like repetitions (“It’s good to be alive/It’s good to know we die”) pair well with an ever-mutating symphony of synth shards and deconstructed guitar. As on many of Wilco’s best songs, Tweedy sounds like he’s reaching for stability in a storm and it keeps slipping just out of reach.
A small bummer, then, that little else on Cousin summons that tension. The album’s middle stretch settles into an amiable midtempo blur. “Levee” and “Evicted” chug along on autumnal minor chords and climate dread, but it’s hard to imagine anyone but the realest Wilco heads differentiating them from listless deep cuts on Schmilco or Cruel Country. “Sunlight Ends” delivers one of Tweedy’s more oblique love songs, but its twinkling folktronica never quite lifts off. The lovely “A Bowl and a Pudding” spins a brooding variation on the undulating arpeggios of “Muzzle of Bees,” while the title track finally summons some jagged edges and post-punk vigor. “The dead awake in waves!” Tweedy repeats at the song’s snarling finish.
Remarkably, Cousin is the fifth Wilco album since 2015’s Star Wars, an eight-year stretch during which Tweedy has also released four solo albums and three books. The guy is prolific. Since writing his memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), he has sometimes activated a more diaristic, literal approach to songwriting. This resulted in the stirring, grief-informed songs of 2018’s Warm, but can also yield exercises in banality. In “Levee,” lyrics like “I love to take my meds/Like my doctor said/But I worry/If I shouldn’t instead” hang there awkwardly, absent any conclusive revelation or melodic momentum. If the inaction of “Ten Dead” served a grim message, this just feels passive.
Cousin isn’t a sister album to Cruel Country, but would it be too on the nose to call it a cousin album? Both peer out at a country infected with hypocrisy and moral rot. This is the album Wilco was working on in 2019, before the band decided to shift gears during the pandemic and make the country record instead. In interviews promoting the latter last year, Tweedy teased the existence of Cousin: “It’s pretty sculpted art pop,” he told Aquarium Drunkard. “It’s alien. The songs are alien shapes.”
If Cousin falls short of that tantalizing description, that’s all right. It’s the first Wilco album in years to activate, in fits and starts, the band’s long-dormant experimental gene; the first one in years where the songwriting feels as guided by the production as vice versa. It’s a reminder that, as much as Wilco have become known for longevity and sturdy perseverance, the group’s creative restlessness remains their calling card.
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