Listen to this track from once alt-country heroes turned avant-pop trailblazers Wilco. It’s ‘Poor Places’ as taken from their sublime, and notoriously tense 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. This was an album that the band’s label financed, hated, and shelved, only to have it picked up by a sister label and released to acclaim. The company that owned both labels bought it twice, effectively. And Wilco moved from one level to the next artistically.
Before this record and this song was released, the group had explored sonic territory that ranged from classic rock, to country rock, to power pop. The release that gained them traction with the music press after their 1995 debut A.M, was 1996’s Being There set them up as roots rockers with a dash of Exile On Main Street-era Stones. Another fine showing was 1999’s Summerteeth which showcased leader Jeff Tweedy’s gift for pop hooks. But, by the time this record was in progress, Tweedy’s wandering musical eye was straying into new territory, with electronic effects and noise being more prominent in his choice of sonic variation.
Fellow Wilco-ite Jay Bennett purportedly objected to Tweedy’s lack of traditional rock-pop focus, which caused tensions while the album was being made. This caused an irreparable rift within the group, and Bennett was dismissed, along with drummer Ken Coomer who was also fired in order to bring in a new drummer more suited to Tweedy’s vision, Glen Kotche. The tensions between band members can be easily seen in the film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which documented Wilco as a touring band, and showcased this era of their storied journey as a musical unit.
Further, and as previously stated, Reprise which is owned by Warner Music Group refused to release it when it was completed in 2001. Later, Wilco was dropped from their roster during a switch over in label management. This forced the band to offer the album on their website after having secured the rights from Reprise.
But when the band was signed with another label later on, Nonesuch (also owned by the Warner Music Group), that label released it. It was critically lauded, and everyone bought it. It is, to date, their best-selling album, helped along in part by Wilco’s free streaming of the record on their site to allow fans to sample it. And Warner paid for it twice.
The thing about it, and which is perfectly framed in this song ‘Poor Places’, is that it is both a well-crafted pop record, and something of a challenge to the ear as well. In the wake of Radiohead’s Kid A, which was something of a touchstone to many bands rethinking their directions at the time, I think record labels were forced outside of their comfort zones quite a bit too. There are some real angular moments on the album, which may or may not be the reason Reprise balked at releasing it. But, there are also some breathtaking melodic ideas which are brilliantly realized that make me wonder what the label bosses were thinking when they shelved it.
With this song, you’re getting the gift for melody that Tweedy had always demonstrated. But, you’re also getting the unexpected, the noise, the chaos which kind of works its way in and out of the otherwise delicate pop song. And I love that tinkly piano bit that precedes the noise, and the austere British voice reciting the phoenetic (why isn’t that word spelled the way it sounds?) alphabet. It is haunting, with depths that few bands ever reach while maintaining a tension between accessibility and experimentalism.
Wilco would leverage their success with this album with another much like it in the experimental pop stakes, A Ghost Is Born, along with subsequent releases in Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), both of which turn the tables again in a return to a sort of mid-70s soft-jam rock sound that undercuts expectations yet again, and with a new lineup with Tweedy’s voice and vision wonderfully at center stage. Basically, it seems that Tweedy feels empowered to make any kind of album he wants to make, which is as it should be for all vital artists.