Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”
Stepping across the threshold, I heard the sound of the world collapsing on itself.
Before my feet fully met our starchy, worn-out carpet, my ears discerned pipes collapsing, walls closing in, some wasted percussionist running mallets along our few appliances in service of a religion called jazz.
All possibilities in the life of our bandbox apartment.
My roommate stretched across the couch, only sleeping but dead to what he unleashed; not an apocalypse in miniature, but a song.
Once my ears tuned in the same way my eyes adjust to brilliant light, I wanted to live in the noise for good.
I would learn to name what I heard, the dial turned as far as factory settings allow: “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the opening salvo from Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” album. Once my ears tuned in the same way my eyes adjust to brilliant light, I wanted to live in the noise for good.
After twenty years, soundwaves settle into a story. People who remain in conversation with “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” will likely hear, then repeat three elements. First, the 9/11 prophecies on an album intended for release on the infamous date, an album that flinches as “tall buildings shake / voices escape singing sad, sad songs” and measures the friction of “skyscrapers ... scraping together.”
Thanks to the faithful transmissions of filmmaker Sam Jones and journalist Greg Kot, who chronicled the album’s making, they also hear a band turning its back to cool orthodox winds, turning inward to craft the Midwest’s answer to Radiohead’s “OK Computer”; or something like “Pet Sounds” for guys who only see the sun when it's hanging over Illinois.
And they pick up on the record scratch of an industry forsaking good taste, and a label which dropped the band without releasing the album, failing to understand “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” in light of past Wilco efforts that hewed closer to alternative country and bittersweet Beatles pop.
I hear these storylines rise and fall with the dynamic markings scrawled into staff paper. Now I also listen for what lives around the noise.
Take “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” I cling to what the piano does; holding the song’s soul intact with dime-store glue, playing at the edges to ensure the band keeps its wits amid the chaos. I notice singer Jeff Tweedy clawing toward moments of clarity, even as the sound willfully drowns so many of his phrases.
Here, Tweedy lives in the barely fallow places between fields of tall noise. Twenty years into parsing a record that changed what I know about receivers and senders, lone human voices and the surround sound, I know you and I do too. The music enveloping us shapes how we sing, and shakes something loose within.
On one side of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and our lives, a complicated, distinctly American noise. Played through a floor-to-ceiling stack of Marshall amplifiers, the sound comprises many tones. Trumpets playing fanfares for half-truth histories and the low electric hum of gas-station floodlights; a marching band’s Friday-night liturgy and the heavens splitting over New Mexico, baptizing your windshield in the way of an unfettered priest.
“Ashes of American Flags” arrives midway through “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” as much an American masterpiece as an Edward Hopper scene, the breathless opening of a Don DeLillo novel or Franz Wright’s line about hope “unendurable, unendurable.” Tweedy steps around opening sounds of broken glass, guitar, and drums pushing him through the door into this national noise.
Craving a resurrection, he sifts his options: maybe a few bucks’ worth of “diet Coca-Cola and unlit cigarettes,'' some fresh air or the burning down of all we falsely hold sacred. Somewhere between these choices, he wonders aloud “why we listen to poets when nobody gives a fuck.”
Living through the noise, praying for more, I stack books on top of each other—a James Baldwin on a Joy Harjo on a Ted Kooser on a Tracy K. Smith—and ask America to swear an oath, to really listen this time as the poets break the clamor. I fear it’s all in vain.
In the other field grows the commotion of our personal histories. Tweedy sings through and into a long-term relationship with his wife Sue. Lucid moments emerge even when he can’t hear himself think, his purposes ringing like a bell. “I’m the man who loves you,” he sings in one.
Other times, he offers what might read like platitudes on paper; sung into a microphone, they stand, propped up by the true weight of love. “Jesus, don’t cry / You can rely on me, honey,” he croons.
On “Radio Cure,” he delivers another (“Cheer up, honey I hope you can”) before his mind slips into more ephemeral images (“silvery stars, honey, kisses, clouds of fluff, shoulders shrugging off”).
Sometimes I strain to speak my love and what comes out is a Tweedy lyric: “I want to hold you in the Bible-black predawn.”
Some days, stationed between blaring radios, your come-ons come out “Let’s undress just like cross-eyed strangers,” as Tweedy sings on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Or you wind up screaming over the din, scraping your throat to offer the best of what you have left, the way he does at that song’s end.
Twenty years into my own covenant, dishwashers hiccup, and coffee pots take up a tragic Morse code, telling you two hours have passed and the world inside is cold. My child talks over his favorite TV show and I hear disappointment in my best friend’s account of the day. Thick noises, prompted by anxiety and fear and internal performance reviews, threaten to outdo my heartbeat.
So sometimes I strain to speak my love and what comes out is a Tweedy lyric: “I want to hold you in the Bible-black predawn.” Or I let the whiskey on my tongue take the lede, but the poetry catches on my lips and I say “Our love is all we have, our love is all of God’s money.”
I long, perhaps as you do, for a quieter existence. For just a few sounds to choose from; birdsong, breath, unforced laughter, a child at their piano working out Bach one broken chord to the next. In this economy, what’s quietest speaks loudest: imperceptible notes of snow falling on snow, mezzo-piano glances between longtime lovers, the slightest rustle of pages as one Christian Wiman poem chases another.
Maybe this is all any of us do. Stringing together sounds until we swallow the sentence. Mumbling our way toward crossed-up poetry.
But maybe noise produces clarity the way pressure yields diamonds. Eventually.
Tweedy famously starts a song with “mumble tracks,” as he explained to The Atlantic in 2014.
“One of the primary ways I write lyrics is to sing and record vocal sounds without words, vowels and consonants that sound like language but don’t actually mean anything,” he said. “... A lot of times people will hear them and think I’m singing real lyrics there, but I’m not.”
What emerges from the writing, the listening, and what Tweedy calls the translating, are a mixed bag of nonsense phrases and the beginnings of proverbs miraculously finding being. From there, more “editing and shaping” until sound finds meaning, he said.
Maybe this is all any of us do. Stringing together sounds until we swallow the sentence. Mumbling our way toward crossed-up poetry. Catching a break and singing what we mean, clear as a river.
“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” ends with seven minutes and 23 seconds of “Reservations.” Tweedy steps out before a buckling wall of sound, fights through what might as well be an eternal buzzing, and offers the clearest declaration of love I know:
“I’ve got reservations / About so many things / But not about you.”
It’s “All You Need is Love” with a three-day-old beard; “Come Rain or Come Shine” on the last of seven days in a row at the office; “In Your Eyes” when you can’t see straight past your sleepless lids.
So much noise in the world, so many of us shaking like toothaches at the sound of our own voices—as Tweedy sings on “Ashes of American Flags”—but after 20 years with “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” what comes through loudest is an admonition. Keep making a sound.