#493: Wilco, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (2002)

493 Yankee Hotel.jpg

In the middle of “All Too Well,” one of the most structurally epic fuck-yous pop music has produced in a long time, a very worked-up Taylor Swift lays into her subject with such calculation and heartbreak that it sometimes physically hurts to listen to. Describing the moment to the uninitiated can be a little difficult: essentially, after three verses and a couple choruses of impeccable, brutal buildup, Tay rips through the song’s bridge like a carefully sharpened blade.

You call me up again just to break me like a promise,
so casually cruel in the name of being honest.
I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here,
‘cause I remember it all, all, all too well.

Maybe it doesn’t work written out like this. Maybe you have to hear it for yourself. Go now; I can wait.

If you still don’t get the chills you so clearly should be feeling rippling through your body, I think I have your answer. Go get your copy of Red, listen to it top to bottom (skipping “Sad Beautiful Tragic” and “The Lucky One,” because yikes), and see if it makes sense that way. Context can change everything, after all. If that particular album is a massive one for pop music and, more specifically, Swift herselfand it isthen “All Too Well” is the moment you realize its massivity. In other words: if you don’t buy that bridge, you don’t buy Tay, and at least you know you can move on with your life, satisfied that you tried.

I’ve been thinking recently about moments like this: the epiphanic kick to the head that any great album will inevitably eventually deliver. Of course, plenty of albums dish out so many of these over the course of their running time that the very idea of an “epiphany” is ludicrousit means nothing if every track makes you get it. These are your Aeroplane Over the Seas, your Gracelands and 36 Chamberses. Bonafide chunks of brilliance. Real Mona Lisas.

The other kind, thoughthe great record exposed as such through one truly gut-busting, quickly-passing momentis much more common. Taylor Swift is good at this, and not just one, but two of her albums model the trick expertly. (Exhibit B.: the subtle way she briefly rides the counter rhythm coming out of the bridge into the last set of choruses on “Fearless.” Trust me.) Arcade Fire has the moment in “Half Light I” where the music drops out and that ghostly pair of voices sings the word “echoes” in the most haunting way imaginable and suddenly The Suburbs falls into place. Eminem decided to say “I’m just playin’, ladies, you know I love you” in that very specific semicreepy, semisincere way at the end of “Kill You” and set The Marshall Mathers LP completely on its head. Tom Waits improvises for almost six minutes on “Step Right Up” and when he says, “Change into a nine-year-old Hindu boy, get rid of your wife,” you are either on board with Small Change or not. The ship’s leaving. Toot toot, adios.

Somewhere on this ill-defined list is Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s a terrific albumtwelve years after its much-heralded release, not many are contesting that. That layered production? Those weird astro-static noises? Those songs? Forget about it. Many people feel many feelings around, for, and through YHF, and I get that. Still, for me it all boils down to one brief snatch of soundthe epiphany in the heart of the anxiety-riddled light rock.

The crushing bummer “Ashes of American Flags” is the sixth song on the record, making it the fulcrum on which the album’s two halves swing up and down. And oh boy, do they. Love to crippling fear and right back up again, ad infinitum. “Ashes” is not my favorite song on YHF. I would put it with the bottom two or three, to be honest, its clunky lyrics and glacier pace colliding into something like a perfect storm of blandnessbut once it ends . . . well, it’s a little difficult to explain.

The enormity of the ending of “Ashes of American Flags” is so difficult to properly explain, in fact, that Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and original Yankee engineer Jay Bennett nearly came to blows over how it should sound. You can see this all go down in Sam Jones’s I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, should you feel so inclined. To be honest, though, it doesn’t offer much in the way of insight: you can listen to the ten-or-so seconds that bridge together “Ashes” and album highlight “Heavy Metal Drummer,” think about what it might have cost the bandthe contentious environment in the recording studio ended up driving apart Bennett and Tweedy for yearsand still come up empty.

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

And here’s what it ultimately comes down to. Here’s where that epiphany shit hits hard. Somewhere in the muddle of white noise, radio static, and glitchy space sounds, someone hits five keys on the piano. They sound random, just another piece of the ether, cutting-room-floor stuff that was kept for “atmosphere.” They’re pretty, but meaningless.

Then the next track comes hard-kicking in, and in the melody’s background, there it is again: that five-note succession, now the spine for a much livelier, much cheerier song built not from one man’s agitation and nerves, but from nostalgia and summer and KISS and getting stoned. The power of this transition cannot be overstatedin fact, in the way it shuttles you softly from blackness into the light of day, it serves as a perfect thesis statement for the entire album.

Maybe this sounds absurd. Just another ex-record store employee placing far too much weight on a minuscule moment in recorded music history to prove some kind of point about some obscure something even he can’t really explain. Someone already made High Fidelity, didn’t they? Wouldn’t you rather go watch Empire Records again instead? Fine. I know. And I won’t try to convince you otherwise. This is exactly that, and I am he.

But if you have the time to spare, just please. I implore you. Can’t it be possible that if you grab your headphones, put on Yankee from start to finish, or try your best with Red, some insight might come along after all? What is music, after all, if not another target for our obsessions? What is a perfect moment if not the catalyst for a thousand more just like it? No matter how brief. No matter. Go now. I can wait.

—Brad Efford