You have to wonder how many times the folks at Reprise actually played Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot before they decided to dump it. (Nonesuch snatched it up late last year after Reprise, apparently deeming it commercial arsenic, cut the band loose from its contract.) Like R.E.M.’s ”Murmur” or Guided by Voices’ ”Bee Thousand,” ”Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is a subliminal album. Spin it once and it barely registers. Play it five or six times and its vaporous, insinuating, rusty-carousel melodies start to carve out a permanent orbit in your skull. It takes time, though, and conventional wisdom decrees that nobody’s got time anymore — least of all busy record executives.
Those who let the arsenic sink in might be tempted to call ”Foxtrot” the first album that really captures the free-floating anxiety of Sept. 11. Which is strange, since Wilco wrote ”Foxtrot” before Sept. 11; apparently the music’s not just subliminal but telepathic. How else to account for a song like ”Ashes of American Flags,” or ”War on War,” with its eerie-jubilant chorus of ”You have to learn how to die if you want to be alive.” (And what about that cover, with its photo of twin gray towers?)
Much has been made of the sonic alluvium bobbing through the mix; it’s like a stream of waterlogged cuckoo clocks, drenched pinball machines, and soused saloon pianos, and it gives the album a constant creaking vertigo. Is that marketplace poison? Compared with J. Lo, maybe, but nobody was ever grooming Wilco for ”TRL.” (Note to self: Send Reprise copy of ”Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.)
To be fair, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy can’t seem to shake his insatiable lust for droopy, arrhythmic drones. There are too many slow songs here. The faster ones are better. But therein lies the paradox of a true subliminal album: The stuff that takes weeks to grow on you could be the stuff you’re still listening to 10 years later.