On “Cruel Country,” the sprawling 12th album by Wilco, the band sweeps aside Nels Cline’s dizzying electric guitar forays and Glenn Kotche’s progressive drumming, stripping away the protective layers that would typically blanket Jeff Tweedy’s vulnerable lyrics and giving him an unobstructed path to the listener.
While it would be tempting to view “Cruel Country” as a return to the Chicago band’s alt country early years — and there is some of that sprinkled across the two discs — it’s more an expansion of songs like “Please Be Patient With Me” (from 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky”) and “One And a Half Stars” (2019’s “Ode to Joy”) that would give an occasional glimpse beneath the artifice.
With more straightforward arrangements, Tweedy’s confessions hit hard, with no sense of tension or irony provided by the music. The scene is set on the lazy opener “I Am My Mother,” Tweedy singing, “As bad as it seems, it’s worse than expected.” Tweedy adds one of his memorable therapy couch lines: “I’m a new man, but I’m still my mother.” Over the course of the album, he’s self-pitying and needy like on the country ditty “Falling Apart (Right Now)” (“Don’t you all apart while I’m falling apart”) and “Please be strong when I’m weak, weighing you down” on “Please Be Wrong,” but he wants to be better: “Let me be someone good you deserve,” he pleads on the latter.
When the band does open up musically, like on “Mystery Binds,” it still keeps things at a simmer rather than the full boil of classic freakouts like the longtime live staple “Impossible Journey.” The effect is a bit like Jonathan Wilson’s low-key psychedelic folk.
With “Cruel Country,” Wilco has found the ideal vehicle for this particular set of lyrics — just like the weirdness of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” was the ideal vehicle for those songs — using restraint and nuance instead of sheer power or complexity to tell these stories, making it the most emotionally arresting album the band has done since “Sky Blue Sky.” Tweedy, too, is the ideal vessel for his own words, with a lived-in self-awareness in his voice that prevents them from landing as Hot Topic throwaways.