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ALBUM REVIEW

Wilco’s ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ reissue captures the sound of a band driven to greatness

Wilco around the time of the 2002 release of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."Sam Jones

April 24, 2002. Wilco is onstage at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence. Not a particularly effusive frontman most nights, Jeff Tweedy nevertheless has a brief moment of euphoria around the middle of the set.

“This is our first show after our record’s out!” he announces, to an enthusiastic response from the crowd. Bassist John Stirratt raises his fist in a brief but triumphant salute. “I still can’t believe it,” Tweedy adds.

His sense of wonder was not misplaced. The record in question was “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” Wilco’s fourth, and its brilliance was clear long before its official release. Tweedy’s songwriting was part confession, part surrealist wordplay, and if the ultimate subject of the record was elusive — Was it autobiography? A lament for a failed country? — its emotional resonance was undeniable, at times overpowering. The lyrics paired brilliantly with the experimental sound palette the band had discovered. “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” was Wilco’s most significant achievement, and arguably still is.

Getting to that point, though, was a saga. In the two years separating the start of recording from that exultant night in Providence, the band replaced its original drummer, Ken Coomer, with the more adventurous Glenn Kotche. Tensions between multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and the rest of Wilco exploded during Bennett’s abortive attempt to mix the record, leading to his dismissal. The label didn’t like “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” and dropped them, leading the band to stream the record on its website. A film crew was around to chronicle a lot of the messiness. Then 9/11 happened and gave many of the songs — “Ashes of American Flags,” “War on War,” “Jesus, Etc.” — entirely new identities.

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That tortuous journey is the subject of a group of reissues celebrating the album’s 20th anniversary (Nonesuch). The “super deluxe” version — spread over eight CDs or 11 LPs — includes a new remaster of the finished album, a set of demos and rough drafts, and recordings of an in-studio appearance on a Chicago radio show and a St. Louis concert from July 2002.

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But for most devotees, the heart of the set will be the trove of 43 alternate versions and outtakes grouped together under the title “Building Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Curated by reissue producer Cheryl Pawelski into a loosely chronological flow, they illustrate how far most of the songs traveled from inception to final form. “Kamera” morphs from march to pop confection to loud glam rock. “Poor Places” appears as piano shuffle, lonely guitar ballad, and Beatles-esque psychedelia. “War on War” was initially a jaunty country romp, banjo and all.

Most of them sound almost nothing like their final versions, which points up one of the limitations of this set. An interview in the reissue booklet with Tweedy, Kotche, and Jim O’Rourke, who mixed “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” makes clear that parts of the album were significantly re-recorded during the mixing process. You won’t hear that transformation here, nor can you reconstruct Bennett’s earlier, ill-fated version. So while a listener will get a deep look at the record’s origins and a few glimpses of the goal line, you don’t come away from this set with much insight into how that final, definitive realization occurred.

There is, however, one utterly remarkable artifact in the collection, never heard before: a version of “Ashes of American Flags” known as the “Stravinsky mix,” in which Tweedy and O’Rourke layered the song over a segment of the slow movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. The idea came from Tweedy’s interest in the simultaneous occurrence of different musical events, à la Charles Ives. Only the Stravinsky estate’s refusal to license the sample prevented this version from appearing on the album.

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It’s the sort of experiment that shouldn’t work but is utterly mesmerizing. The noise elements in the song’s background bleed into the sinuous texture of the symphony. Tonalities clash and Kotche’s drums erupt. Tweedy sings, “I know I would die if I could come back new” as the chorus declaims (in Latin) “He has set my feet on the rock and ordered my comings and goings.” If any single element of this set can sum up both the band’s aspiration to unlock the new, and the music’s haunting resonances, it’s this.

Those resonances weren’t planned, but they happened anyway, and that, as much as anything else, is the true story of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” “I still rely a lot on feeling around in the dark and serendipity,” Tweedy says in the booklet. “You have to put yourself in the path of it.”


David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.