In June of 2001, Wilco presented its newly finished album to its record company, Reprise Records, and was promptly dropped from the label. Time Warner had recently merged with America Online and wanted to cut costs with its record companies, which included Reprise Records. As a result, all it took was for one important person in the company to dislike the album, and that person happened to be interim President David Kahne.
On April 23, 2002, Wilco finally released “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” with Nonesuch Records, but all of its fans had heard it by that point. Before signing with the new record company, the band had uploaded the album to its website amid all the uncertainty regarding its release. The entire situation was chaotic to say the least, but luckily for the band, the music shone through.
The alt-country sound of its first three albums is apparent, but “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is a brilliant, experimental product of a multitude of sounds and musical genres. There are shades of psychedelic rock; at times a folk influence is distinguishable, and of course, the peculiar but fascinating radio transmissions that are sprinkled in throughout. Wilco proved that while it represented a throwback to the rock music from decades earlier in some ways, it was also more than capable of forging a new path for itself in the music world.
From the very beginning of the record, lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s impeccable songwriting is on full display with the opening track, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” The first few lines are strange to say the least: “I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue.” What Tweedy exactly means with those lyrics is up for debate, but they are undeniably intriguing. Tweedy continues in the first person and goes on to explore a faltering relationship with similarly open-ended lyrics, describing what seems to be a drinking problem and his deeply conflicted feelings about his lover. The song is a complicated listen for the audience, as it is transparently sad and dark, yet it also ends with Tweedy singing “I’m the man who loves you” (which happens to be the title of another track on the album). In many ways, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is an accurate depiction of the nature of relationships on some level: complicated, messy, but filled with love.
Beyond the somber opener there are more upbeat tracks, one of which is “Heavy Metal Drummer.” Telling a story about a young girl who “fell in love with the drummer,” the song’s simple melodic structure is a much-needed change-of-pace for an album filled with sophisticated motifs and musical complexities. The whole experience oozes nostalgia for lost teenage years, with lyrics such as “I miss the innocence I’ve known.”
While there are certainly plenty of other notable tracks that are worth exploring (“Jesus, Etc.,” “Ashes of American Flags” and “Poor Places” to name a few), any discussion of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” would not be complete without mentioning its last song, “Reservations.” Returning to exploring a relationship, Tweedy sings about how he struggles to make sense of so many aspects of his life, but one thing he knows for sure is his love. The song brings the work full circle, as it examines a relationship in the way that “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” does, but this time in an undoubtedly more optimistic way. The last lyrics that fade away with the track are memorable and heartwarming: “I’ve got reservations / About so many things / But not about you.” So simple but so profound. Hopefully, in a time where we are all quarantining either alone or with friends or family, everyone feels they can say those same words to someone important in their life.