Half a decade before Spotify was imagined and years before “streaming” music entered the lexicon, Wilco did something remarkable and completely new. On September 18, 2001, the Chicago band released their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, available for free listening on their website.

he decision was not taken lightly. Jeff Tweedy and an assorted group of musicians had been hard at work on the album for the better part of a year and the sessions, which saw the departure of two members, were so tense it felt like he couldn’t. would never come out.

It almost wasn’t. When Tweedy submitted the final copy to their label, Reprise, the album was rejected. They were one of America’s top bands being told by a venerable label that the record was a huge disappointment and that they wouldn’t put any of their resources into releasing or promoting it.

That’s when Tweedy decided to err on the side of caution and put it online — in hopes it would find an audience. Social media was still a long way off and Google had only been around for three years, so the guarantee that a large audience would find out about it was not there.

But they found it. Soon the word emerged that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was an album that every serious music lover should hear. Nonesuch executives’ ears perked up as well, and the label officially released the album on April 23, 2002. Ironically, Nonesuch and Reprise share the same parent record label, leading to some suggestions – not entirely accurate – that Warner Music had paid for the same album twice.


The cover of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot depicts the towers of Marina City in Chicago

The cover of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot depicts the towers of Marina City in Chicago

What is beyond doubt is the masterpiece Wilco has achieved despite, or perhaps because of, the chaos of its creation. But more of that later.

The album received the deluxe reissue treatment this month – a fascinating document that reveals how the songs were developed from their demo state. But even without this new release, the album’s place in the canon of American alternative rock has long been assured.

It remains Tweedy’s greatest work in what has been a broad and prodigious career. And it baffled expectations from the start. As a founding member of Uncle Tupelo, the Illinois native had been at the forefront of the influential early ’90s movement that embraced both alternative rock and the roots music that would come to be dubbed alt- country.

In his follow-up group, he was keen to experiment more. Wilco – short for “will comply” – was the vehicle where his ambition could be fully realized. And it was the recruitment of former math teacher Jay Bennett in 1996 that really pushed the band’s development.

Their sound palate has expanded over the course of three albums: AM, be there and summer teeth. The Last of Them, released to near-universal acclaim in March 1999, still amazes with the sweep and glory of its songs, including fan favorite Through Chicago. The Windy City has long proven to be an inspiration to Tweedy and it certainly makes its way onto the album that would become Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

By the time the band got together in their Chicago loft studio in late 2000 to make it, Tweedy was determined to let their creativity run free. Bennett was too, but trouble was brewing. Along with their desire to make bold, brilliant songs came an unwavering belief that their way, and only their way, was the right one. Much of the legend of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is browned in the fact that his creation was captured in Sam Jones’ fly-on-the-wall documentary I try to break your heart. The film, named after the album’s opening track, captures a band fracturing. The Los Angeles-based photographer thought he would shoot a relatively conventional group film, but as the problems mounted he stayed until the money ran out to document everything, filming 80 hours of footage.

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Jones’ film is something of a classic in its own right. Right from the start, we encounter a group in crisis. Vulnerabilities are laid bare, disagreements are brutally exposed and hostilities are played out. Yet the inspiration to make a special album is still there.

The changes came early. Drummer Ken Coomer was ousted within the first few weeks of recording, his place taken by percussionist Glenn Kotche, whose improvisational style leaned more towards jazz than rock and perfectly accompanied the ideas not Tweedy’s conventional wisdom on songcraft.

Jim O’Rourke, the avant-garde musician and producer from Chicago, was asked to help with the sessions – he was the one who suggested Kotche to Tweedy – and while Bennett was initially in favor of bringing O ‘Rourke, he began to feel that his own contribution was marginalized.

O’Rourke would play an important role in helping to deconstruct songs like I try to break your heart and to reconstitute them in stimulating and clever compositions.

That’s not to say that all tracks are big on convention. heavy metal drummer revels in his pure rock sound – it remains one of Wilco’s most performed live songs – while the beautifully tender Jesus etc finds Tweedy at his poetic best. The strings that embellish the latter were arranged by Wilco bassist John Stirratt.

The original plan was for the album to be released on September 11, 2001 – that notorious day in recent American history – and some have pointed to the oddly prescient lyrics, especially on Jesus etc with its catchy lines “high-rise buildings shake” and “skyscrapers scratch”.

The New York Times nailed the impact of the album: “Yankee is a work of both granular intimacy and universal sweep: a record that sounds, eerily, like being inside someone else’s headache that also foreshadowed the widespread existential malaise that has arisen. slaughtered in the days and years after 9/11.

Tweedy fired Bennett before the album was completed, insisting he could no longer work with him. As revealing as the Sam Jones documentary is, it’s perhaps unfair to Bennett, who comes across as somewhat stubborn and petulant. A more recent documentary, the one from last year Where are you, Jay Bennett?attempts to offer a fuller view of a musician who died of an accidental fentanyl overdose at the age of 45 in 2009. His vital contribution to Wilco up to and including Yankee Hotel Foxtrot should not be discarded.

In the liner notes for the new box set, Tweedy writes about what he hoped to accomplish on the album. “I was trying to put things in perspective for myself: how can there be all these good things I love about America, alongside all these things I’m ashamed of? And that was also an internal matter; I think I felt like that for myself.

The title, incidentally, comes from an album that Tweedy was then obsessed with, The Conet project, a compilation of eerie recordings of shortwave radio stations believed to be spy transmissions. One track features a woman’s voice humming “Yankee…hotel…foxtrot.”

The distinctive cover image depicts the towers of Marina City, one of Chicago’s architectural marvels, and designed by renegade architect Bertrand Goldberg in 1959 and completed between 1964 and 1968. One of the most photographed buildings in the city, the austere black and white photo on the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot cover was taken by Sam Jones.

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