Scratch the façade of too many contemporary musicians and you’re very likely to come away with a fingerful of grease, a glimpse of a marketing man’s demographic statistics and little more. Too few seem able to withstand any serious scrutiny. There is a notion, to paraphrase John Peel, that when it comes to creative expression some people have to while others just can. The compact retelling of their life history here, from eccentric alt.country outfit to one of the planet’s prime group of sonic wayfarers, reminds us Wilco are very much in the former category.
Their intense, considered approach to making music borders on the academic. The results, however, are sublime, playful and truly human and The Wilco Book gives an under the fingernails insight into what might become your favourite band or else just marvel at the obsessions of a group of men determined to push themselves out of their own creative comfort zones.
Jeff Tweedy, singer and focal point for the band’s explorations is clearly an intense chap and this book manages to convey Tweedy and associates’ passion for their craft while remaining an outsider, looking in. From the tools of their musical trade, to the spaces they create, to snatched moments of interaction between band members; everything is captured in unforgiving and cruelly beautiful photography. There are points when this is more a dissection from a medical textbook than a fannish inquisition and is all the better for it. Meanwhile, rock critic Rick Moody provides a great analyses of the band’s musical progression which borders on the ridiculous but remains happily insightful.
West coast artist Fred Tomaselli and celebrated author Henry Miller are tag-teamed here to provide an interlude; turning over the vinyl from side A to B happens to be a novel if, unnecessary twist. The accompanying CD of Wilco music is a selection of fragments culled from recordings made while producing their last album A Ghost is Born. Improvisations, moments of in-studio spontaneity, and extracts from experiments, are fascinating for context as much as content. The Wilco Book offers insight into the methods behind the labours that sizzle on Jeff Tweedy’s already buzzing synapses. And after reading it, you’ll want to hear more.
Mark Robertso n is music editor of The List