When Nels Cline signed on as Wilco's new lead guitarist in 2004, it seemed like an odd match. True, Wilco was already well into its evolution from alternative country to dense, textured art-rock. But Cline's quirky six-string effects were further out there still. Nevertheless, Cline's left-of-center guitar textures have become such a signature of Wilco's sound that it's difficult to imagine the group without them.
Here's the really odd part, though: A lot of Cline's odder flights of guitar fancy with Wilco aren't necessarily his idea.
"I am actually reluctant to toss out weird guitar ideas," Cline says, calling from New York. "A lot of the wildness on records, Jeff (Tweedy) has to drag out of me. Maybe it's because I'm a little too reverent when I hear a classic sort of folk song, but approaching it that way is rarely what Jeff wants. Running roughshod over it is not my first impulse. Whatever my role and guitar sound, when that emerges is not usually when I expect to do it. It's when things have gone on for a while and I'm kinda cajoled."
That cajoling works its magic yet again on "The Whole Love" (dBpm Records), Wilco's seventh album, in stores next week on the same day the band plays in Raleigh. As is typical for Wilco albums, it's radically different from its predecessor, 2009's "Wilco (The Album)," and it's a grower that takes a while to sink in.
Diverging and emerging
Ten of the album's 12 songs are models of conciseness, clocking in at under four minutes. But the album's most notable tracks are its elongated bookends. The opening "Art of Almost" has pulsing electronic beats reminiscent of Radiohead, cruising along for more than seven minutes and exploding with an outro of heavy guitar riffing. And the closing "One Sunday Morning" is a delicate, beautifully dreamy acoustic ballad that goes on for ... 12 minutes.
The two songs emerged from very different methodologies. "Art of Almost" underwent a series of radical changes in the studio during recording, while "One Sunday Morning" escaped almost as is.
"What you hear on 'One Sunday Morning' is a refined version of the only time we ever played it," Cline says. "Nobody knew how long that was going to go, Jeff just kept playing and singing - and that's what's on the record, basically. Jeff loved the feel of it and asked us to refine it a bit. Even after trying some other guitar things, most of what's from me there is the original demo, including the clams. It's so quiet, and I don't know that Jeff had all the lyrics done. A song like that has a certain raw freshness.
"With 'Art of Almost,' there was a lot of messing around on that one. It started out as this almost down-tempo Crazy Horse jam, and next thing I knew it became this whole other thing. Jeff will have these lightning bolts where he reimagines things like that, maybe when he's driving. They were layering in these effects, some drum programming and editing and manipulation that completely transformed it from this loping, almost drifting song."
Wilco is one of the last bands left that still makes records that feel like events - and also organic, unified, old-fashioned capital-A Albums. And while the industry's focus has gone more toward single songs in recent years, Cline is still an enthusiast of the full-length format.
Freedom and variety
"Because of my age (56), I tend to be an album person," Cline says. "Bands I'm interested in, I want to hear their albums. The idea of the album is perhaps passe in terms of marketing. People are into songs, or at least casual listeners are. But even making my own pop-less instrumental records, I tend to sweat the sequencing because I want the listener to go on a journey. A well-rounded experience that takes you somewhere, maybe lands you in a cool place by the end. It's fun to take a journey if a band has thought about the material in that way.
"With Wilco, there's a certain variety to the records that makes them harder to sell with old strategies," Cline continues. "In the '80s, it seemed like a lot of bands later considered classic were making records that sounded the same from beginning to end. But Wilco doesn't come from that, which makes it a good fit for me. Not only is there good songwriting, but freedom and variety. The possibility exists for both classic economy and excessive mayhem, which is a good combination for me."