The small towns and suburbs that dot the American landscape have been a near-infinite stream of inspiration for the last half-century of pop music. Springsteen rode his way out of town in a beat-up Trans Am, only to be sucked back in, time and again, by the romantic tragedy of hard-luck hoods and deserted streets. Green Day combined latchkey kid anomie with a hefty dose of snot-nosed sarcasm, building songs about burning out and jacking off into the Nevermind the Bollocks of a new punk generation. Arcade Fire turned the suburbs into a post-apocalyptic battlefield not once, but three times, the childish exuberance of their first record beaten into the ground by grating suburban ennui until, “by the time the first bombs fell, we were already bored.” Real Estate long for the carefree days of their youth and the winding roads of New Jersey, finding life, beauty and authenticity in the sprawl of suburbia.
Yet for all of their success, I don’t think any of these bands, or the countless others who’ve stepped up to the challenge, have truly captured the unique, ineffable nature of the American suburbs. How could they? To do so – to capture the freeway gridlock and the quiet cul-de-sacs, the sprawling strip malls and the mom-and-pop diners, the peaceful parks and the looming shadows of skyscrapers – is to capture the essence of Americana, to distill the hopes, fears and realities of 315 million people into 45 minutes of music – 90 if you’ve got the balls to pull off a double album. Impossible, right? Probably so. And yet, with 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco comes closer than anyone before or since.
You’re probably skeptical. I get that – Wilco’s a polarizing band. Several of my closest friends absolutely hate their music, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in particular. They say it’s dull and flat musically, obtuse and nonsensical lyrically, precious and pretentious in its calculated, oh-so-perfect imperfections.
And if I’d heard the record once and moved on, maybe I’d agree. It’s a pretty unassuming and agreeable affair – mid-tempo pop with a country twang, anchored by Jeff Tweedy’s loveable yawp and a steady acoustic strum. After the pots-and-pans clangs of the opener, the noise is on the whole unobtrusive, floating through like radio static every once in a while. I totally get how you could see it as sedate and, especially after the heart-on-sleeve mania of 1999’s Summerteeth, even – dare I say – boring.
But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Wouldn’t the perfect encapsulation of suburbia have to be at least a little bit boring? Shouldn’t it sort of float by, like so many white picket fences and abandoned strip malls, until you take the time to stop and find out what it really is and what it really means, who made it and why?
Give Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that time and I promise you’ll find vast universes within the 11-song arc that runs from the first alarm clock ring of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” to the last fading squawks of “Reservations.” There’s the haunted lounge country of “Jesus Etc,” the power-pop chorus of “Pot Kettle Black,” and the dissonant swirl of “Poor Places.” There’s the wounded helplessness of “Ashes of American Flags,” laid back-to-back with the breezy nostalgia of “Heavy Metal Drummer.”
People always speak of the great American cities as “melting pots.” But really, I think the suburban landscape is the true melting pot – the lives of an unbelievably vast and impossibly diverse body of people colliding in small ways every day, bubbling slowly but constantly, an infinity of hopes, thoughts and fears simmering together to create an American ethos.
And that’s why I think Foxtrot speaks far more to Tweedy & Co.’s Belleville, Illinois roots than to their adopted home of Chicago. It moves slowly and speaks softly, but just under its pristine surface, it brims with an almost impossible amount of life. Wars are fought; buildings rise and fall; lovers are pushed away and pulled right back.
It’s easy to read powerfully sad messages into lines from across the album, from the puzzled anti-corporate malaise of “picking apples for the kings and queens of things I’ve never seen” to the 9/11 terror of “skyscrapers are scraping together.” But it’s Tweedy’s treatment of the everyday that really sparkles. He cries for help, singing “Phone my family/Tell ‘em I’m lost on the sidewalk/And no, it’s not okay,” but realizes that big problems often have small solutions (as David Foster Wallace once said: “in the day to day trenches of adult life, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance”). Many of Foxtrot’s most arresting lyrical moments are indeed ‘banal platitudes,’ repeated mantras grasped at like life preservers: “I’m the man who loves you”; “Every song’s a comeback/every moment’s a little bit later”; “You have to learn how to die/if you wanna be alive.”
Tune out the lyrics entirely, however, and Foxtrot is still a tour de force. “Jesus, etc.” is somehow both coked-out and impossibly serene - plaintive strings wrapping Tweedy’s reedy tenor in a warm blanket, consoling him while the world falls down around his ears. “Radio Cure” escapes a sea of noise with a determined stomp, only to collapse back into the static. The contrast between “War on War”’s fatalistic imagery and its liquid sunshine groove would be unsettling if it weren’t so damn fun. Elegiac centerpiece “Ashes of American Flags” is absolutely breathtaking, a national anthem for a lost generation. I can almost feel my Todd Rundgren mullet growing when the keyboard squiggles explode out of “Heavy Metal Drummer.” There’s an incredible amount of texture hidden just under the album’s veneer, so every listen is as fresh and invigorating as the first.
In its own quiet, unassuming way, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot proves that suburban America is far more than the faceless sprawl of “soon-to-be ghost towns” Isaac Brock imagined it to be, more than something to hop in your Mustang and blast away from with “Thunder Road” blaring on the speakers. It’s the vast and vibrant heart of our ethos, the canvas upon which we paint our greatest desires and our biggest fears. It’s inscrutable and ineffable, touching all of our lives in ways we can’t quite identify.