Shape-shifting Wilco gets all straightforward


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Jeff Tweedy embraces change better than most.

That’s partly because he’s restless, partly because he’s a perfectionist and partly because his band, Wilco, has shuffled through 10 members in 15 years.

Until recently, Wilco never fit a pre-existing mold.

Through myriad reinventions, Tweedy’s lyrics sought order in an enigmatic, quintessentially American (and predominantly Midwestern) world.

On Tuesday, Wilco released its seventh studio album, a collection of 11 rock songs that reflect the subtleties of six records that preceded it.

“People have a romanticized, revisionist notion about each record being some momentous, boundary-pushing step in our history,” said Tweedy from the road in Oregon. “Some people dig it, some people don’t, but in the end it becomes a part of who Wilco is.”

Critically adored for its progressive take on roots music, Wilco had as its greatest attribute through its first 10 years a strict avoidance of classification. From alt-country to power pop to noise to wistful alternative rock, a new Wilco seemed to emerge on each successive album, while Tweedy’s shopworn voice held the entire catalog together.

Shortly after the release of “A Ghost Is Born” in 2004, the ever- changing lineup solidified, and the progression plateaued. Wilco’s 2007 album, “Sky Blue Sky,” presented a band with a singular style, a band no longer so hard to describe. As a sextet, Wilco created a saturated and accessible aural signature, much to the chagrin of longtime listeners.

Now, “We’re making the music we want,” said Tweedy.

“I feel it’s consistent with my idealized version of a band. There were problems with the other lineups. That doesn’t make them bad; all of the former members facilitated the records that we made or needed to make. But there were issues with the others, which is why this band is who it is now.”

For the new album, Wilco abandoned its Chicago loft studio for a series of impromptu sessions in New Zealand following a charity project with Crowded House singer Neil Finn. The change in location soon became an essential part of the record, said Tweedy.

“We were able to focus our attention on getting really basic tracks,” he said. “That’s hard to do in Chicago because there are so many different instruments that you want to try, instruments just sitting around the loft. In New Zealand we were bass, guitar and drums cutting pure, bare- bones rhythm tracks.”

While the album may come across as straightforward by Wilco standards, the band does experiment. But for legions of followers who crave the rough edges and intellectual challenges of past works, “Wilco (The Album)” will likely fall short.

“My theory is that the band has presented itself in very ambiguous ways for a long time,” argues Tweedy. “This allows more room for people to pour themselves into it and define it for themselves. That’s kind of what this record is commenting on in a way. We’ve been reluctant to spell it out to people forever.”

If ambiguity is the common thread through seven studio albums, 12 different members and 15 years on the road, then the ambiguous aspect of Wilco in 2009 is a lack thereof.

Regardless, Tweedy’s riding high. His band played the best song from their new CD (“You Never Know”) on “The Tonight Show” last week, and he’s traveling the country with his family, as documented by 13- year-old son/blogger, Spencer.

“Having the family out on the road many years ago, that would’ve been a lot harder for me,” Tweedy confessed, “because I struggled with the person up on stage versus who the person was as a dad, a family member, a husband. There’s still a separation there. It can’t be the same person exactly, but the chasm is much more manageable.”

If disharmony and calculated chaos were the undercurrents of 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” often hailed as the band’s magnum opus, the foundation of “Wilco (The Album)” is an admission of maturity.

“Wilco’s a band full of grown-ups. I think that’s why it works. That’s why it’s so much more enjoyable than when it was a band full of babies,” Tweedy said.

After extensive touring through the summer and a fall run through Europe, he’s unsure what lies ahead.

“I woke up this morning feeling like, ‘Oh the record’s out, I better write some new songs,’ Tweedy said.

“As for the future? I like to believe that we’ll know when it’s not working anymore. I think we will because Wilco’s done a good job of addressing things when they’re dysfunctional. When the whole thing is something else, when we’re not at the core stuff that this is settled around — I’d like to believe we would know.”