Wilco was a musical legacy when it began in 1994. In a decade of grunge and hip-hop, it instead drew on a boomer trinity of the Band, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And now that the group itself has decades of its catalog behind them, ‘Cruel Country’ also circles back to Wilco’s own past; the band used a similar, hand-played, live-in-the-studio approach on their 2007 album, “Sky Blue Sky.” The country music that Wilco embraced on that album, and returns to throughout most of “Cruel Country,” has a singular vintage: the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Buck Owens and Merle Haggard pushed country toward rock while bands like The Grateful Dead, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers associated three chords of country with psychedelics.
Half a century later on ‘Cruel Country’ the sound is even more nostalgic, though it still leaves room for exploration, especially in a handful of songs that culminate in the kind of jam Wilco extrapolates onstage. Lumbering or shuffling in mid-tempo, the songs often sound serenely resigned. But there’s an underlying tension in the lyrics and in Tweedy’s scratchy, understated, overtly imperfect voice. He sounds tired but stubborn and lingers there like the music he clings to.
The album opens with ‘I Am My Mother’, a waltz about the hopes and roots of an immigrant: ‘Dangerous dreams have been detected on the southern border’, Tweedy sings. And in “Hints,” he contemplates a bitterly divided nation and insists, “Keep your hand in mine,” but notes, “There’s no middle when the other side/would rather kill than compromise.”
The album juggles despair and persistence, gravity and humor. Wilco comes up with a twangy, perky chicken-picking country in “Falling Apart (Right Now)”, where Tweedy laments to a partner or population, “Don’t you fall apart while I’m falling apart”, and in “A Lifetime to Find” – a conversation with Death, who suddenly arrives: “Here to gather.” And amid tinkling keyboard tones and teasing slide guitar lines in “All Across the World,” Tweedy admits he has mixed feelings about getting comfortable while others suffer — “I can hardly bear to know what’s true.” ‘ – as he wonders, ‘What is a song going to do?’