Having just returned from a tour of the United Kingdom and Europe, Nels Cline was preparing for an unusual undertaking for his band, Wilco, when he called for a mid-September interview. “We are actually going to do something very uncharacteristic, which is we’re going to rehearse for the tour,” the guitarist revealed. The reason for this abnormality is the fall tour of the states. It will be the band’s first outing in support of “Cousin,” the album Wilco is set to release on Sept. 29.
“We haven’t played these songs live yet,” Cline said, noting only one song from the new album was performed on the UK/Europe tour. “We try to avoid having a bunch of You Tube versions of the songs before anyone’s heard the album.”
While Cline noted the band has run through stripped back versions of some of the “Cousin” songs, “there’s still plenty to address and plenty of sound design in my case to address because, as we tend to do in Wilco, we want to reproduce the tones and textures as closely as possible, as faithfully as possible, I guess I should say. That’s probably going to take a little work on this one.”
One thing the band won’t do is use backing tracks to cover any sounds the six members of Wilco can’t find a way to play live. “Oh God, no, we won’t be doing that,” Cline said emphatically. Cline and his bandmates need to get up to speed with playing the songs from “Cousin” because the members weren’t together for the bulk of the recording.
With fellow artist Cate Le Bon brought in to produce the album—the first time Wilco had used an outside producer for an album since the 2007 album “Sky Blue Sky”—the plan wasn’t to record live as a band in Wilco’s Chicago studio space, the Loft. All six band members (singer/guitarist/band leader Jeff Tweedy, Cline, keyboardist/guitarist Pat Sansone, drummer Glenn Kotche, bassist John Stirratt and keyboardist Mike Jorgensen) only convened for a short initial session before the real work on the album commenced.
“Cate was really desiring to make a more layered record and not so much a live record,” Cline said. “So we came in individually after the first session. I worked for two days with Cate one on one, while Jeff (Tweedy) was there and Tom Schick, our beloved engineer, was there at the Loft.”
This instrument-by-instrument approach to the recording is readily apparent in listening to “Cousin.” Where Wilco’s previous album, 2022’s “Cruel Country,” was a rather lean, acoustic-led country-rooted affair, “Cousin” is a full-bodied work that incorporates a kaleidoscopic range of instrumentation and sounds to create a far different kind of album than its predecessor.
Perhaps the most sonically ambitious moment comes on “Infinite Surprise,” the opening song on “Cousin.” The track builds from spare guitar/vocal verses into a swirl of pillowy synthetic sounds, accented with edgy elements courtesy of Cline’s fuzzed up guitar and the squalling saxophone parts from guest Euan Hinshelwood. “Sunlight Ends” makes effective use of an echoey rhythm track, seemingly random twinkling notes and washes of synth-like tones to make what could have been an intimate ballad a grander, more colorful experience. The thwacking drum tone on the title track, coupled with shimmery guitars that dart in and out around the vocals, turn what could have been a fairly monochromatic song into a multi-hued, yet edgy, adventure.
By and large, the other songs aren’t quite as production forward, but have plenty of sonic treats built around the consistently inviting vocal melodies and steady, unobtrusive tempos that anchor these songs. “Evicted” is embellished by sparkly guitar parts and the pleasantly bent lead guitar lines, while “Levee” has a dreamy atmosphere that adds a mystical quality to the song. “Meant To Be” is enhanced by airy textures that provide a nice contrast in this otherwise driving pop-rock song.
The album’s overall feel is something a bit different for Wilco, Cline observed. “When I heard the mixes, I realized that there were certain things in the mixes, like a certain amount of reverb or certain contrasts between dry and wet that were different from the way Jeff and Tom, for example, would work,” he said. “I think that’s what people are going to kind of respond to sonically with the record and it’s kind of what people are talking about.”
“Cousin” is likely to remind long-time Wilco fans of 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born,” which were sonically dynamic, quite experimental albums that turned the more straight-forward roots-pop sound of the band’s first three albums on its head and established Wilco as one of rock’s most musically fearless and adventurous acts.
The recording sessions with Le Bon marked a key phase in a process that began in 2019, as Tweedy began writing and sharing demos for some of his new songs with his bandmates. It was a prolific period of writing for Tweedy – something that is not unusual for the singer/guitarist, who formed the original lineup of Wilco in 1994 after the demise of his previous band, the trailblazing alt-country/rock band Uncle Tupelo.
When the easing of the pandemic allowed all six members of Wilco to finally convene at the Loft, it became clear the band had two distinctly different albums in play. Eager to enjoy playing together as a band, the more country-oriented material was recorded first, mostly live off the floor, for the 21-song “Cruel Country” album, while the other more art-pop oriented songs were saved for what became the “Cousin” album.
Cline continues to be impressed with Tweedy’s songwriting output and his ability to unlock fresh ideas in the writing and production of Wilco albums. The songwriting, he noted, has increasingly become a solitary endeavor for Tweedy, as the last time the other band members collaborated to significant degrees on the songs was on the 2011 album “The Whole Love.”
“Especially on the last few records, it’s Jeff’s world and we live in it,” Cline said. “I mean, he wants to make records that don’t sound alike. He doesn’t use the same methodology sometimes at all as the previous record. Also, everybody in the band except for me at one point lived in Chicago. Now only Glenn and Jeff do, so that changes the way a record gets made, too. It could be frustrating for Jeff sometimes, I don’t know. But certainly, Jeff is somebody who enjoys making records and he pushes himself, I think, conceptually and even sonically to not get stuck and not do the same things again and again. Then the rest of us just try to make that work and do what makes him happy.”
For now, much of Tweedy’s focus will be on Wilco’s live shows. The band’s set lists change from show to show, as Tweedy expends considerable effort mixing and matching songs from the band’s 13 albums. Wilco shines live, as many of the songs grow more potent live and the interplay of the six musicians is even more readily apparent. Cline is not the boastful type, but he likes what he and his bandmates do in concert (double meaning intended).
“We endeavor in live performance to play 100 percent hot (good) shows. And I feel like we pretty much do, so there’s satisfaction in that,” Cline said, noting he feels Wilco is more of a rocking outfit live. “Overall, I think we go to bed after the show thinking ‘Well, that was good.’ And that’s a good feeling, to have pride in one’s work.”