DBpm Records—DBPM 001-23-CD
Wilco has produced all of its own albums since its sixth release, Sky Blue Sky (2007), but for its 13th, Cousin, the Chicago-based band reached out to Welsh musician and producer Cate Le Bon. Earlier in 2023, Le Bon produced H. Hawkline’s Milk for Flowers, and she has also worked with Kurt Vile, Deerhunter, and many other musicians. Her own work often consists of highly experimental art-pop in which she leverages sound and studio effects to create unusual music that falls outside the mainstream.
Cousin shares some of the sonic adventurousness of other Wilco recordings, such as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001) and A Ghost is Born (2004), but this release doesn’t mark a sudden shift in direction. The band often uses studio-generated effects to meet its goals, a practice harking back to its second album, Being There (1996), and one that even showed itself here and there in last year’s Cruel Country, Wilco’s most overt stab at Americana since its debut, A.M. (1995).
Cousin’s most sonically arresting track opens the album. “Infinite Surprise” mingles a variety of sounds in its first 30 seconds, including a ticking clock, a heavily processed, reverberating guitar in the left channel, and an overdriven guitar that creates the sound of an explosion. The clock continues ticking as Jeff Tweedy begins to sing, accompanying himself on guitar. The song intensifies, other instruments enter bit by bit, and Le Bon joins Tweedy in spots on vocals. Glenn Kotche plays a simple drum part, soon followed by Nels Cline’s guitar lines, which grow more threatening. After segueing into a quieter passage, the track flows into a closing filled with noise and distortion.
“Ten Dead” captures the dread and sadness of a school shooting and Tweedy’s frustration over the casual acceptance with which it’s reported in the news. For much of the song, Cline’s guitar cuts in with eerie musical lines, evoking feelings of fear and grief. Tweedy’s guitar arpeggios also take on a ghostly quality as the song unfolds. The two guitars become more menacing as the song moves toward its conclusion.
Le Bon’s contributions are usually subtle and indirect. “Sunlight Ends” mixes a beatbox with live drums, and the halting keyboards are a Le Bon touch, as are the keyboard washes in the last third of the song. The title track rocks steadily, and Le Bon adds a springy echo to the drums and wraps the track in a shimmering, bright sound that becomes darker and more ominous.
The acoustic guitar opening to “Pittsburgh” quickly transitions into a densely layered passage of distorted guitars, which subsides as the verses begin and Tweedy’s voice and guitar are accompanied by drums, muted keys, and John Stirratt’s understated bass lines. Cline begins a simple, melodic solo that grows into a series of engaging arpeggios as various effects swirl around him and the other musicians. As Tweedy sings the closing verse, a claustrophobic feeling grows in the recording, reinforcing the alienation and confusion expressed by the lyrics.
Le Bon’s synthesizer strings run through the background of “Meant to Be,” and her backing vocals add a tender dimension to the song. Cline’s baritone guitar lines pull the song together and the effects added to Kotche’s drums give them a soft-edged tone that adds to the song’s complex romanticism. “Soldier Child” also benefits from Le Bon’s harmony vocals, and Cline’s brief solo ends the song on a satisfying note.
Bursts of energy are evident on Cousin, but overall, it’s a more reserved album than Cruel Country. Wilco recorded Cousin at the Loft, its recording studio in Chicago, with engineer Tom Schick. The sound is clean, allowing the instruments and effects to register. Repeat plays allowed me to appreciate that Le Bon brought a light touch to Cousin but added vital elements that served the music well.
Wilco has been making records for 30 years and its consistency is remarkable. Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting skills show no signs of diminishing. The selections on Cousin are filled with great melodies delivered in thoughtful, careful arrangements that convey the complex ideas and emotions contained in Tweedy’s lyrics. “Ten Dead” is topical, but many of Tweedy’s lyrics on the album hint at his own mortality, the difficulties of living in a time when people talk incessantly without saying anything, and the mysteries of love.
Le Bon hasn’t pushed an agenda on Wilco, instead choosing to help the band focus its efforts and presentation. While I enjoyed Star Wars (2015) and Schmilco (2016), I thought the band might be moving toward a comfortable late career. Instead, Wilco has proven with subsequent releases—Ode to Joy (2019), Cruel Country, and now Cousin—that it will continue challenging itself and its fans.
. . . Joseph Taylor