The City Kept Blinking: Waking up and falling asleep in Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”

My dad taught me to wander. If you ever talk to him about his job, he won’t stay on the subject for long. Instead he talks about Chicago and all the places he walks to during his breaks. There’s an aviation museum at Boeing HQ, a small coin museum on Canal, the Hellenic Museum in Greektown. He wanders to these places for something interesting to break up a day at the office. It’s weird to say he’s good at wandering, but he is. Some wander aimlessly. Others wander to find a better sense of place, a better understanding of identity.

Ten years have passed since Wilco released Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Critics slobbered all over it, record labels guffawed at its economic fragility and rather confusingly, consumers went out and bought it. It holds a particular place in rock and roll history. The band fought over its production for years, even forcing the recently deceased Jay Bennett out of the band. A documentary was made, followed by manifold tours and sessions. For many, YHF represented a step away from the record label model, a real stick-it-to-the-man story. For me, it provided an unequivocal idea of place and self-awareness, much in the same way that wandering does.

I’ve been thinking about this retrospective for close to a year now, ever since I found a used vinyl copy in a record store basement. I felt melancholy, languished by the fact that someone actually parted ways with something so dear to me. The copy had hardly been touched either, the full effect not yet realized. I didn’t really listen to the record any more this year than any other year—I don’t find new interpretations to be as compelling as my memories with it. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has never sounded better than the night that I realized I was in love and could do absolutely nothing about it. I came home from the Paradise Lounge after a few beers and put the record on. Jeff sang divergently, as disinterested in my thoughts as I was in his. Beyond the personal, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot engages with the whole of urbanity, filling in the holes of a constantly evolving environment, one that changes in the blink of an eye.

The reason Yankee Hotel Foxtrot almost didn’t get a record-label release is simple: it has no identifiable target market. Who wants a record where the only real singles deal very closely with death and rebirth (“War on War”), non-sequitors (“I’m the Man Who Loves You”) and Gene Simmons (“Heavy Metal Dummer”)? We currently live in a society that values having a Starbucks on every corner, so everyone can lay claim to a corporate manifestation of their wants. How do you sell something like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in this value system? It is one of the great American works of art, right up there with the Pollacks and the Rothkos and the Walkers that keep museum attendance up. It emanates from who knows where, out towards who knows what, ironically balanced on the same value system that seemingly should just ignore it.

But that’s exactly it. Jeff Tweedy and company knew where their record sat; far apart from any of these divisive categories. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sells itself. On paper, it’s a Wilco record with some photos of Chicago. In stereo, it becomes the city of its dedication. YHF is a record you crawl inside and live in. It allows the assertion of identity—almost more complete than what we normally have access to—but you have to fight for it. Jeff Tweedy sings at you, clearing the air about past actions and retaliations. If you can overcome the more obvious readings—buildings shaking as a preemptive metaphor for 9/11, love as a correct-all, pot-meet-kettle—you realize to fall asleep in the city is akin to ignoring a huge part of it.

In a spot-on review of YHF‘s followup, A Ghost is Born, Rob Mitchum writes, “Won’t you come home (and stay home), Jeff Tweedy?” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot embraced Chicago in a way no other artist had since Saul Bellow. It laid the artistic groundwork for me to see the city as its own work of art, a roving, towering sculpture with intrinsic benefits beyond the economically quantifiable. We can derive our identity from the city we live in, New York City, or we can use it to form it ourselves, Chicago, and more uniquely, Madison, WI.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot derives its strength from its own self-reflective power. The frenetic anti-crescendo of “Poor Places” gives the city a whole new pulse—one foreshadowed by “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” picked up again by “Pot Kettle Black” before finally being laid to rest—a pulse more deeply rooted in entropy, disparate from convention. “Poor Places” highlights those little places, like my Dad’s coin shop on Canal or the Paul Bunyan Room in Madison, that make cities complex ecosystems and houses homes.

So yes, Jeff, please come home. The city keeps blinking whether you’re here or not, but it blinks a little brighter when you’re around.

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One response to “The City Kept Blinking: Waking up and falling asleep in Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”

  1. Pingback: Suds: September 14 | Midwest Beer Collective

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