The suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, bloom around the city like a springtime fractal. It’s 4 p.m. in 1996. You gulp down a sandwich, grab a half-empty backpack and run out through the door and into the summertime. Sparing the headgear, you hop on your bike, pedaling under a tart sun toward a best friend’s house in a rush. You had talked about making a trip to the record store after school; that new album was finally out.
But when you pull the brakes on his driveway, it’s autumn. The blood-orange leaves gather around your feet. He doesn’t answer the door. You knock again, and when he comes, it is to tell you that he has a girl over – talk later, yeah? A chilly winter breeze whips off your cap. When you look back, the snow has settled inside your open backpack, blanketing your baseball cards, ruining your cassette player. You feel childish and stupid, suddenly.
In many ways, the quiet sensitivity of Midwestern indie rock outfit Wilco is post-melancholy — it breathes a mood of lost innocence like a given. This is especially true on the band’s 10th studio album “Schmilco,” whose songs exude not nostalgia for suburban rites of passage, but describe with reverence the white American experience — a mood tinged subtly with self-aware bitterness.
The record’s opening track “Normal American Kids” best represents this. If the title sounds tongue-in-check, the lyricism is heartfelt and adeptly complemented by pastoral guitar strumming. The song describes the existential discomfort of life as a member of humankind’s most privileged demographic, as well as the consequent desire to detach oneself from it — as though somehow this would justify the gloom of consumerism and suburban emptiness. Essentially, the song is a solemnly self-conscious criticism of so-called “First World problems.”
The following track “If I Ever Was a Child” continues along this theme. Here, Wilco communicates with younger versions of themselves, like hard-boiled adults turned into disillusioned romantics trying to pinpoint the moment when things changed, though feeling little certainty of what exactly changed or how. Was it out behind the school parking lot, smoking a first cigarette? Or dropping out of college, with little direction in life?
On one level, the vision of childhood channeled on “Schmilco” feels oppressively near — the trading cards peeking out from under off-brand booze and unfinished tax returns — but just as often it feels impossibly distant. As though to complement the fleeting nature of the feeling, the album’s run is unusually brief, most of the songs clocking out in under three minutes.
But to be sure, “Schmilco” is not a sad album, even if its longest track is named “Cry All Day.” It is merely honest — and refreshingly so. “Cry All Day,” indeed, is not about unshakeable and debilitating sadness as much as it is about owning up to emotion, an action that has counterintuitively become taboo in the context of urban America’s theatrical and antiseptic interpersonal relationships.
This is where the tension on “Schmilco” festers. “Kids say the darndest things,” say adults, but perhaps it is that they say the most honest things. What happens when they begin to lie for their self-interest? Something is lost, something that Wilco attempts to put into words on this record. Their lyricism alone does not always capture it — which may be impossible with some transcendent themes — but their effortless musical craftsmanship, on this record as polished as ever, never fails to convey what words cannot say.
Favorite Track: “Normal American Kids”
If you like: Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Angel Olsen