Dynamic duo in loner’s clothing

For the past decade, disturbing questions have swirled around Wilco like the insistent entreaties of some couch shrink. And one of them doesn’t ever seem to get resolved:

Who exactly are you?

Well, no wonder: The band’s albums seem to add up to something like a Dharma vision quest.

Is Wilco the group that validated the idea of alt-country, as it seemed to with its 1995 debut A.M. (Reprise)? Or are its members instead musical activists who, along with British socialist rocker Billy Bragg, took on some of the heavy mantle of Woody Guthrie in interpreting a batch of the late folk icon’s lost songs on the two-disc project Mermaid Avenue (Elektra, 1998 and 2000)? Or perhaps Wilco are electronic searchers of American anxiety, as suggested by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch Records, 2002).

Or are they champions of jam improv and Crazy Horse meltdowns, as boasts their just-released A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch)?

To add to questions of group identity, there are the soap operas that cling to Wilco like a lonely blanket. Lead songwriter/vocalist Jeff Tweedy writes about the seduction of isolation — yet the band’s own internal drama has raised a pitch loud enough to be heard by the American mainstream.

The headlines have been ruthless: “Reprise lets Wilco go after album disputes!”

“Tweedy in rehab after addiction to migraine pills!”

And the constant cast of stand-ins brings us back to that earlier unanswered question: Will the real Wilco please take a bow?

Only two members remain from the A.M. crew — Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt. However, the creativity still flows, despite the impermanence of other players.

“Theologians,” Tweedy croons on the new album, “don’t know nothing about my soul.”

Fortunately, Stirratt has at least a passing familiarity with it.

One headache after another

The Tweedy/Stirratt relationship has remained steadfast now for more than a decade, and the two players’ alter egos form Wilco’s prism personalities. Tweedy’s presence suggests terminal melancholy, while Stirratt’s warmness — evident even in a phone interview — seems to kindle a fire under his counterpart’s cold, desolate writing.

“The lyrics to Jeff are more to his heart than the music,” Stirratt revealed from his home in Chicago. “He really likes to have a guiding hand, and if anything, he’s getting better and better.”

That’s not to say that Stirratt knows exactly what the hell makes Tweedy tick.

“I try to get a gist,” says the bassist. “But of course, with Jeff’s songs, they’re very subjective.”

The two’s connection dates back to their days together in Uncle Tupelo, the band most often credited with birthing alt-country, and one that achieved cult status in a mere smattering of years. And the first-born of Wilco’s many dramas also began here — Tweedy and Uncle Tupelo co-vocalist/songwriter Jay Farrar dissolved the band over numerous differences, and from the rupture emerged Tweedy’s Wilco and Farrar’s now-defunct Son Volt.

Their animosity apparently still remains. Farrar stated, as recently as 1999, that he’d never even listened to a Wilco album.

Still, Wilco’s biggest tempest bided its time until the advent of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The band up to that point had remained essentially intact since 1995, with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, drummer Ken Coomer, Tweedy and Stirratt.

The filming of a documentary about them, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, coincided with the recording of YHF. A grand idea until Coomer — who’d been with Tweedy and Stirratt since Uncle Tupelo’s swansong Anodyne (Sire, 1993) — got replaced by present drummer Glenn Kotche.

“At that time, the film was presented to us by Sam [Jones] as a document of the making of a record,” Stirratt recollects. “We had so [few[ photographs in the studio, that we all thought that it might be really cool. Unfortunately, [filming] coincided with Ken being fired. Frankly, it added a certain falseness to the whole proceedings.”

Yet Yankee Hotel Foxtrot survived — even though a few influential people at Reprise were out to see it dead. But the band wouldn’t budge on altering the music.

“At that point, it was kind of easy to stand with what we said, because we couldn’t have changed [the record] if we tried,” says Stirratt.

The widely circulated rumor at that time was that Wilco bought the rights to the album back from Reprise for a cool $50,000, then split with the label. In truth, as the band has revealed since, no actual money ever changed hands; Reprise gave them the masters for free. Yet in the midst of all the turmoil, Bennett departed Wilco under that timeworn catchall “creative differences,” to be quickly replaced by Leroy Bach.

Lacking a company to release YHF, Wilcoworld.net streamed the album in September 2001, and gathered 3.5 million hits. Nonesuch Records picked up the record and released it the following April.

Critics immediately hailed it as a masterpiece, making fans’ anticipation for A Ghost Is Born near obsessive. But Tweedy and Stirratt were largely nonplussed.

“You get a little nervous — a lot of people are going to be waiting for this new album,” the bassist admits. “But at the end of the day, you forget all that and you go about the methods you know.”

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