It's Prog Jim But Not As We Know It

Traditionally at least, there’s very little about alt country that can rightfully be considered prog. But then Wilco have never been your average roots band.

By 2001, they’d issued three albums of country-ish rock with nods to The Replacements, Big Star and Uncle Tupelo, the latter being the former vehicle of Wilco chief Jeff Tweedy. These were records that bled freely into soul, R&B and hard rock, each one an incremental shift from its predecessor in terms of ambition.

Yet no one was quite prepared for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: a dizzying confection of avant-garde flourishes, arty prog and weird noise, wrapped in just enough melodic know-how to make it utterly palatable. Such a record warranted its own creation myth. And boy did it have one. Initially due on 911 (a portent in itself), Reprise pulled the album, citing what they considered a lack of commercial appeal. The upshot was that Wilco acquired the rights and streamed it free on their website. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot finally found a home on Nonesuch, who released it in April 2002. The great irony being that both Nonesuch and Reprise were imprints of AOL Time Warner. In effect, the parent label had bought the album twice.

Relations within the band were hardly smooth either. Drummer Ken Coomer (at Tweedy’s side since Uncle Tupelo) was ousted in favour of the more flexible Glenn Kotche, deemed a better choice to carry off the album’s percussive tics and rhythms. Co-songwriter Jay Bennett was then fired on completion, after much conflict over Tweedy’s decision to bring in left-field producer Jim O’Rourke as mixer/engineer.

The irony of it all was that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, as suggested by its title, was an album about communication. Or, more pertinently, our struggle to do so on both a personal and global level. This disconnect was echoed by Tweedy’s use of transmitter static as a recurring motif amid songs that swapped moods as if governed by a random dial. Distorted guitars elide into experimental jazz on War On War; dissonant art-rock flirts with musique concrète on the epic_ I Am Trying To Break Your Heart_; samples from shortwave stations seep into Poor Places, rife with electronic effects and semi-classical tones.

Complex, adventurous and often very beautiful indeed, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is progressive in the truest sense. And, in light of the fact that it remains Wilco’s biggest seller by some distance, proof that populism and daring need not be mutually exclusive.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.