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Album Review: Wilco - 'Cruel Country'

Updated: May 3, 2023

A lot of people are going to listen to Wilco's Cruel Country and declare that the band went all in with the country stylings. However, the band does have well established roots within the genre, forming from the band Uncle Tupelo which was far more country leaning. You can even hear this on the band's first record A.M.. However, as time would pass the band would lean more into alternative sounds, even going as far as a debate being sparked between who was the United State's answer to Radiohead, Wilco? or My Morning Jacket? Regardless, while they may have held onto some of their alt-country stylings for certain songs in the past, Cruel Country is a hard turn back into alt-country. And honestly? It feels like throwback Wilco to me.

Cruel Country relies heavily on acoustic guitar, steel pedal, and isolating front man Jeff Tweedy's vocals. While the band has certainly shaken things up on this record, keep in mind this is not modern country (auto-tune, shitty lyrics about trucks and beer, etc.). It's still firmly footed in alt. According to the band's press release, the album was recorded mostly through live takes with few instances of overdubs. They noted they had not really tried an approach like this since Sky Blue Sky (my favorite Wilco album). The result is something earnest, carefully crafted, and smooth. The band really slows and strips things down on this record in a way only Wilco can. They do add some flair with the occasional steel pedal guitar, strings, or piano, but for the most part this is an album that is up front about what it is, it doesn't toy with you.

On the album, Tweedy and Co. tackle with themes of death and challenges facing the country and how to solve them. The band believes one of the best ways to do that is through country music, hence the title Cruel Country. The album comes in at a staggering twenty-one tracks and the band doesn't waste time on any of them. They are all worth your time. There are moments in this album where you pickup the carefree nature of The Grateful Dead's more country leaning music. Or you get the Willie Nelson's classic lyrical honesty. In short, the album recalls a great deal of memories, while creating some new ones. I'm so glad that this is a sound that Wilco decided to explore more, it's some of their most riveting stuff.

Rating - 5/5

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