“Cousin” demonstrates Wilco’s edge, prowess

Courtesy of Wilco

Wilco’s “Cousin” begins with an incessant, rhythmic ticking like an analog clock, a steady water drip or a running machine. Crunchy guitar distortion swirls and moans on top, first panned hard to the left and then swelling into a textured tide. As opening track “Infinite Surprise” kicks into gear, it sets the tone for Wilco’s newest project, which runs bone-deep. 

Released on Sept. 29, “Cousin” is immersive, compelling, at times unsettling and understatedly profound. An innate sense of beauty runs through the album, cutting straight into the soft parts of our humanity as though skin were never more than an inconvenient obfuscation. The album is not trying to be anything; it simply is. 

There are unpolished moments, yet this rawness draws the listener into its emotional landscape, creating a trust between the listener and music that would be lost in a studio-polished, manufactured product.

At the same time, the album is undeniably technically well-crafted. The sound mixing is masterful and a diverse array of effects are used in varying degrees of subtlety to immerse and orient the listener. The ten tracks display an impressive array of songwriting power; emotional honesty never once strays into rambling. At 43 minutes long, “Cousin” is an exercise in concision. Not a single beat or line is superfluous. 

This is the band’s first release to feature outside collaboration since 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born.”  Fans and critics alike find producer Cate Le Bon provides a breath of fresh air. Over two decades since their seminal “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which remains a revered cornerstone of alternative rock, “Cousin” proves that Wilco still has something new to say. Youthful angst is replaced by more mature and resigned reflection, making a cohesive statement which showcases deftness gained over years of creative fulfillment.

The band retains its signature heavy, melancholy sound mixed with jangly and soulful country roots, while playing with modern alternative rock trends, demonstrating that Wilco is still unafraid to innovate and blend styles. “Cousin” wears its influences on its sleeve with the confidence that its voice remains uniquely its own.

The influence of shoegaze, so named because players would stare down at their feet as they pressed distortion and reverb pedals to create ethereal, dreamy textures, can be heard in the use of heavy effect pedals and ambient sound. 

Dizzying, looping guitar riffs in songs such as “A Bowl and A Pudding” and “Levee” call to mind the motifs of Midwest emo, especially given Wilco’s birthplace in Chicago and their prominence in the alt-country scene.  

At points in “Infinite Surprise,” a whining instrumental yawns microtonally between pitches, providing a tortured counterpoint to the resonant reverb. This resembles a similar effect in Neutral Milk Hotel’s song “The Aeroplane Over the Sea,” achieved with a saw and a violin bow. Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s plain yet emotional vocals also recall Neutral Milk Hotel—nostalgic, desperately earnest, displaying both bands’ folk sensitivity at the heart of their songwriting.

At best, Wilco’s lyrics are simple without being obvious or cliche. Tweedy is not trying to be pretentious or clever. His lyrics and breathy, slightly scratchy voice foster intimacy, balancing a naive sense of wonder and unselfconsciously honest observation with an ever-present awareness of the banality and monotony of existence. 

Throughout its ten tracks, “Cousin” explores themes of identity, isolation and futility.

“So good / to see you  / see you again. / I’d almost forgotten / what it’s like / to be this child. / Hold my hand across the table. / Act like you’re invisible,” the narrator sings in “Soldier Child.”

This sweetly haunted song captures the hazy recollection of childhood: The lyrics gaze back with nostalgia and estrangement at the simultaneous comfort and alienation created by a lack of autonomy, which can never truly be recaptured.

In “Ten Dead,” one of the album’s heaviest and most hauntingly beautiful songs, a dirge-like chord progression and soft bass drum trudge onward like heavy footsteps. The lyrics express the defeatism born of watching tragedy from a distance day after day, leaving the narrator numb and apathetic. The lyrics steer clear of being overly political or confessional, instead varying the bleak title statement
with metaphorical vagueness.

“The way my life will bend / the way my attention bends / the way that my knee bends,” Tweedy sings. “A scratch on the cheek / a father to fight / I was too weak, too cold. / Mostly night, I was mostly night / Not enough light to hold.” 

Motifs of darkness and night are repeated throughout, alluding to the narrator’s notion of being inert and insensible. 

“I woke up this morning / and I went back to bed. / Ten, dead, ten dead, / now there are ten dead … Ten more, eleven more, / what’s one more to me?” the narrator says. 

The musical plodding feels cyclical, conveying a sense of resignation. With a repetition of the opening lyrics, the song ends right back on the dispassionate observation with which it began. 

Elsewhere, the lyricism is handled with a clunkier touch, and at times feels juvenile for a band on their thirteenth album. While sanguine confessions rang true on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the simplistic bemoaning of broken relationships feels less poignant from a 56-year-old Tweedy than it did two decades ago. 

“I’m evicted / from your heart,” Tweedy sings over and over in “Levee,” in a particularly
heavy-handed metaphor. 

However, any lyrical fumbling is saved by the intelligent chord progressions which mesh satisfyingly with the melody, harmonizing simple vocal lines to create tension and resolution. Each chorus places a hook in the listener’s heart, and the album is chock-full of stomach-swooping drops. Musicianship bolsters sentiment where pure lyricism falls short—even trite statements sound newly tense as the words teeter on the edge of an arpeggiated dominant chord, longing to fall. 

Back at the album’s beginning, the breathless, ticking beat of  “Infinite Surprise” becomes overwhelmed by the haunting distortion, distanced by its heavy reverb. Then the vocals and a closer, compressed guitar come in, which sound almost as if they were being played out of a tin can or portable radio. In fact, the whole song has a distinctly mechanical feel. 

Layers thicken and fall away, varying the tension from quiet and coiled to thick and stormy. At points, the song dies back down to leave its ticking heartbeat exposed once more, reminding the listener of the inevitability of the passage of time. 

Finally, “Infinite Surprise” relinquishes its order as it is gradually overwhelmed by an arrhythmic crackling sound, until everything else dies away and the listener is left with a reminder of entropy, inherent imperfection and the necessity
of failure. 

“It’s good to be alive / it’s good to know we die,” Tweedy sings—ultimately choosing to embrace this fragility and imperfection within the
wonder of existence.

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