For the first time since 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco has created an album with an outside producer: the singular Welsh artist Cate Le Bon. The album is Cousin. “I’m cousin to the world,” Jeff Tweedy confesses. “I don’t feel like I’m a blood relation, but maybe I’m a cousin by marriage. It’s this feeling of being in it and out of it at the same time.”
Longtime admirers of each other’s work, the band and Le Bon first met and improvised together at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival, where they formed an immediate connection that inspired Tweedy to invite Le Bon to the band’s famed Chicago studio, The Loft, in 2022 to work on Wilco’s thirteenth studio album. There, Le Bon pushed the band to take risks, repurposing their established strengths and challenging them to oppose habits––all while maintaining what has, for the last thirty years, defined Wilco as a band: their big-hearted fearlessness, made possible by musical virtuosity and the secret language only a family shares. The result is Wilco’s most pointed and evocative album, one related but not tied to our present moment, truly new ground for a band that has covered so much of it.
The band had been exploring Cousin’s songs since at least the time they first met Le Bon at Solid Sound in 2019. They had fully recorded different approaches, exploring high- and low-volume arrangements, both obtuse and straightforward. Le Bon arrived in Chicago to rebuild: to create a scaffold with Glenn Kotche’s architectural drumming and John Stirratt’s contrapuntal bass lines; a scene with Mikael Jorgensen’s cold, lonesome synths, Pat Sansone’s plaintive piano work, and guest instrumentalist Euan Hinshelwood’s mangled saxophones; and a topographic pattern out of Jeff Tweedy’s electric guitar bends and Nels Cline’s textural explosions, which Le Bon describes as “the weather,” to carve a path for Tweedy’s yearning lyrics.
“Cate is very suspicious of sentiment,” Tweedy says, “but she’s not suspicious of human connection.” With Cate’s direction, the album evolved into something icier and more nighttime-ish than anything Wilco had created before, while still retaining the earnest quality of Tweedy’s songwriting and voice. The album’s sharp guitars, unrelenting rhythms, and digital-sounding slapback delays provide a powerful contrast, turning the warmth of Tweedy’s voice into a port of safety. Tweedy delivers his feelings, now, from an environment that reflects the one we live in and the one inspiring the songs in the first place. “The amazing thing about Wilco is they can be anything,” Le Bon says. “They’re so mercurial, and there’s this thread of authenticity that flows through everything they do, whatever the genre, whatever the feel of the record. There aren’t many bands who are able to, this deep into a successful career, successfully change things up.”
The album opens with the white noise of “Infinite Surprise”: figurative wind blowing trash around telephone lines, traffic, distant church bells. A midwestern flurry of sounds, transporting you like Dorothy’s tornado into Cousin: a place of concrete and pavement, where we cope with faltering connections and hope for renewed (or unprecedented) national or global closeness. “Infinite Surprise” itself is a banner statement about art and life. Making music is infinitely surprising, every song materializing in an “empty sky,” and so too is the world. What’s interesting is not so much the fundamental reality that the universe surprises us all the time but instead how we try to understand ourselves and maintain a connection on a ground that’s shifting all the time.
Throughout the rest of the Cousin, the album’s statement on human connection is writ small, revealed in vignettes of the lowest social unit: a pair. “Evicted,” the album’s first single, sees a narrator grappling with his responsibility for losing love counterpointed by Marc Bolan-inspired guitars; on “Levee,” a groovy, beach goth track with shadowy synths and a lap steel, Tweedy weighs aloud the choice between stability versus stagnation and crisis versus closeness (“Save me again / make me, make me lose you and then / save me, save me again”).
“A Bowl and a Pudding” tells of a turning point in a relationship while a forest of tranquil, twelve-string acoustic guitars is undercut by obstinate, syncopated drums. On “Ten Dead,” Tweedy vocally represents what it’s like to live in a society where people can’t be bothered to protect each other, singing in a sardonic deadpan over sunny piano, punctuated by demented chord changes.
The post-punk swagger of Cousin’s title track is, musically and lyrically, a fight with a relative. Or rather, a refusal to fight: the narrator holds their familial opponent in a de-escalatory bear hug, while admitting, “My cousin / I’m you.” Tweedy expresses anger, grievances are laid on the line (“When your red lines / Get crossed with mine / I object to you / Our deal’s un-struck”), but he recognizes that we hate in others what we hate in ourselves. “Cousin” says we owe it to each other to fight, as long as we remember our own culpability and our sameness, our relation.
In Tweedyian fashion, the album travels approximately from dark to light, with the beginning of reconciliation in “Solder Child,” and ending with the disco-ish hope of “Meant to Be”: we’re not sure whether connection is restored, whether it ever could be enough, but we see the sustaining power of trying to get closer together, striving.
“I’m cousin to the world…” In and out of it. Hoping, expecting, and then despairing. Smiling through antidepressants, feeling bad in warm weather even when others tell you it should be making you feel happy. Cousin is Wilco’s most emotional, worthwhile expression yet of the pain of trying to be connected to other people when we fall short so often; the joy of catching understanding in someone else’s eye, however fleeting; and the immutable truth that all of us are related, whether we honor or dishonor or forget or remember.
Video & Press
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