“I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue,” Jeff Tweedy begins Wilco’s fourth album, the wonderfully cacophonous, self-mythologizing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. This release from 2002 is well documented for the trials and tribulations that unfolded during recording and release; the fallout with the record label, the fallout amongst band personnel, and the legal conflict encountered as a result of lifting one of the most famous samples used in rock history.
There has been much discussion over the meanings of those opening lines, and many subsequent phrases that Tweedy employs throughout the album. This is because the record deals intimately with memory, communication, and interpersonal balance – all experiences that reflected the creative process of the band’s most successful album to date.
Having trodden a reasonably comfortable path through the alt-country landscape, Wilco enjoyed successes with melodic phrasing and pop-leaning, though engaging, lyrical fare. Releases like Being There and Summerteeth had captured and contained the imaginations of a fan base that had enjoyed the work of Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo, his previous outfit. The audience, and appeal of Wilco, had grown considerably when Billy Bragg had invited them to partner on the Mermaid Avenue albums; adding music to previously unrecorded lyrics from songwriting legend Woody Guthrie.
Phrases emerge as utterances, lost in the space between people.
Alt-country, at that time, was positioning itself as a more credible, less hair-sprayed sound than the twang of straight-edged modern country music. His poetry was evidenced on previous releases, but it was Summerteeth that revealed Tweedy as a lyricist that could turn a phrase until it twisted it’s own resonance into a listener’s heart. On that album, his delivery of “Via Chicago” couldn’t be improved, and “How to Fight Loneliness” was as tragically beautiful as anything he’s recorded before or since.
However, it wasn’t until Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that Tweedy’s songwriting would accomplish a universal perspective with such cohesive form. This is a set of tunes that is purposefully discolored, but also subject to a quickening in process– passed through the conflict between Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist, band member, and producer, Jay Bennett. In a string of confrontations, some of which were captured in Sam Jones’ documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, a fly-on-the-wall film depicting the recording process. The two creative forces were at odds over the narrowing or broadening of focus. Tweedy appeared to be concentrating on the expansive themes of the album whilst Bennett scrutinized the molecular options. Whilst the film is a must-see for any Wilco fan, (Or indeed, any film student who needs to learn how to edit over 80 hours of raw footage into art) Tweedy himself suggested that the focus was a little too heavy on his relationship with Bennett, who was jettisoned from the band upon concluding the recording process.
Arguably however, Bennett’s approach to keyboards and production techniques were instrumental to Tweedy’s vision, elevating Wilco from the limitations of Alt-country and into the unique position in which they exist today, as one of the most feverishly followed bands in modern rock history. Bennett cowrote eight of the eleven tracks on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and should be celebrated as creating one of the greatest albums in rock history. Whatever happened between the co-creators of the album clearly ran much deeper than what was depicted on film, but for all of their struggles, they created magic somewhere in that dysfunctional chemistry. It would be a shame to remember Bennett’s influence as simply as it was depicted in a few minutes of celluloid, where egos of equal controlling measure sparked off one another. Bennett, who sadly died in 2009, remained locked in a legal pursuit for unclaimed royalties from the band.
Once the recording process was complete and the tunes were submitted to the label, the band was dropped. Reprise Records, a Subsidiary of Warner Music Group, considered the album to have no commercial appeal. Wilco refused defeat and simply streamed the album online. This was back in the day of dial-up internet when most people struggled to stream songs for longer than 15-second chunks, but still the sounds did marvelously well with newcomers and initiated fan base, and therefore captured the imagination of Nonesuch Records, ironically another Warner Music Group label. Nonesuch signed the band right back up, meaning Warner paid again for the same product.
At the heart of this album sits communication and broken lines: Is anyone receiving me? Am I getting through?
Listening now to the tunes of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it seems insane that any industry-trained ear could pass on the ‘product’ as being un-commercial. The track list scans like a set of radio-friendly challenges, and amongst the more kaleidoscopic noise tunes like “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and “Radio Cure” are the more accessible “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Pot Kettle Black”. Throw in classic tunes like “Jesus Etc.” and “Ashes Of American Flags”–which sometimes seem larger than the album that birthed them–and a picture of contrast and consistency is revealed– just the kind of thing that sells well at market.
At the heart of this album sits a theme of communication and broken lines. Sometimes expressions stutter internally, never to be articulated, other times phrases emerge as utterances, lost in the space between people. The title of the album is taken from a series of words from the phonetic alphabet that Tweedy had heard on the Irdial box set, The Conet Project; Recordings Of Shortwave Numbers Stations. Played on loop, a woman’s voice states, with pristine, mechanical diction “Yankee… Hotel… Foxtrot.” But the recording is distorted, somehow, and so repeated and faded as it is, there’s a strange element of distress, as if the phrase is code for something desperate; Is anyone receiving me? Am I getting through? Wilco were sued for lifting the sample, but damn, was it worth it! The effect of the ‘stolen’ loop sits as a cornerstone to the album and infects the entire listening experience, unlocking other misty elements of miscommunication: “I am trying to break your heart.”
If commercial and critical acclaim are the conventional methods of measuring a classic album, another standard to check is the impact on following generations and songwriting peers. The cover versions that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has inspired affirm the dexterity of the source material. There are number of tributes to and adaptations of YHF, each offering a spectrum of success, but it’s Norah Jones, and Bill Fay’s solo versions of “Jesus Etc.” that hold the jewel into new lights for diverse audiences, all of whom surely leave with tears welling.
For all of the drama, upset, and legal nonsense that surrounded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, there have been years and years of discussion concerning its creation and delivery, which at times was in danger of overshadowing the exceptional art at the end of the tunnel. This is an album that stands as a banner to creative process, and to a part of history that saw the music industry scrambling to make sense of a new, digital-distribution model. Of course YHF was one of many such albums, but it’s one of the best.
What Wilco (and much of rock music) has become today is informed by the sound and process of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The cultural reach and the longevity of the tunes, which still sound best when played up loud, stamp this album as a classic via the art (mis)communication.
Images: Nonesuch Records