Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has always felt just out of reach. It’s easy, perhaps convenient, to forget the album was recorded prior to the September 11th attacks, as the two seem irrevocably intertwined; the suggestive cover art (Chicago’s twin Marina City towers overlooking the Chicago River); song titles like “War on War” and lyrics like “Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad sad songs”; an unofficial release on September 18th, 2001. Musically, it is incomparably and irresistibly strange, idiosyncratic to a fault. In Uncut‘s original 2001 review of the album, it was labeled, perhaps unfairly, as “Americana’s Kid A.” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became a monolith, a work of art so infinitely flexible and brilliant it had already been canonized as a true American masterpiece. And it was a hare’s breath away from being an epic disaster.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot lives and dies in the discordant piano clangs of album opener “I am trying to break your heart.” “Still I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy” says Jeff Tweedy, his slight smirk becoming more pronounced by the second. Tweedy is not the prototypical singer-songwriter. His voice doesn’t shine in the darkness; in fact, prior to YHF, Tweedy’s vocals were often downplayed in favor of more interesting guitar and percussion work. Likewise, his alt-country style of lyricism was dismissed by some critics as plain and overly sentimental. But something clicked with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and sixteen years later, it’s still difficult to tell exactly what went right. But above all else, the album revealed something that still holds true to this day: Jeff Tweedy is not afraid to make mistakes.
“There is something wrong with me,” he sings on “Radio cure,” giving no hint as to who he’s talking to. Later on, amidst a chorus of bright chimes, Tweedy crones “Distance has no way of making love understandable.” Both of those phrases—each one a mental double take seemingly soaked in metaphor—are very simple. There are dozens and dozens of moments in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in which a two-lane highway is found to contain sudden speed changes, winding curves, and innumerable exit ramps. Each song is an experiment of itself, comfortable enough to just exist but free enough to test its borders.
It therefore comes as no surprise that such a risky album spent a significant amount of time in limbo. Jeff Tweedy and guitarist Jay Bennett clashed constantly throughout the album-making process: Bennett was apt to focus on small musical minutiae in individual songs, such as the brief transition from “Ashes of American Flags” into “Heavy metal drummer,” an event seen in Sam Jones’ film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, which documented the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Tweedy was wholly unconcerned with the transition, more focused on the broader thematic questions of the album. Attempting to bridge the gap between their different points-of-view, Tweedy invited record producer and musician Jim O’Rourke to mix “I am trying to break your heart.” Tweedy liked the results, and O’Rourke subsequently mixed the album. When all was said and done, Tweedy removed guitarist Jay Bennett from the band.
At nearly the same time, Wilco’s label, Reprise Records, came under new management. David Kahne, the A&R representative for Reprise, was left with the decision of whether or not to release the album. Worried about being bogged-down by tedious back-and-forth arguing, Wilco negotiated a buyout from Reprise, securing the rights to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the process. Tweedy was hellbent on releasing the album as closely to its scheduled release date (September 11th, 2001) as possible. The following week, on September 18th, Wilco streamed the album in its entirety on their website. It was a surprising hit; traffic to the website increased tenfold, and the subsequent tour was a massive success. Tweedy noted that audiences sang along to tracks that had not yet been “officially” released. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s commercial release would not come until seven months later; Nonesuch Records dropped the physical album on April 23rd, 2002.
Once again, mistakenly, YHF seems a product of this tumult rather than an inanimate player. It is a work of art entangled in deep mythology. “Ashes of American Flags” paints an eerily prophetic picture of post-9/11 America. Tweedy half-sings “I wonder why we listen to poets when nobody gives a fuck,” uninterested in waxing poetic about the chaos of modern American life. Poetry abstracts reality, separating its many parts in an attempt to piece them back together in a way that makes complex thoughts, feelings, and experiences seem profoundly simple. That’s great and all, but Jeff Tweedy doesn’t really give a fuck—and for that matter, neither do we.
Chaos is forever chaotic; there is no way to rationalize hatred or violence or the collapsing twin towers of the World Trade Center. It’s all chaos; chaos and randomness. Tweedy brings the track to a sobering end, singing “I would like to salute the ashes of American flags / And all the dead leaves filling up shopping bags.” He seems to be making some off-color reference to reincarnation. Dead leaves can return to their tree, but the tree takes a different form; it is certainly not the same, but is it altogether that different? If the American flag is reduced to ashes, who’s to say we can’t pick up the smoldering pieces and build anew?
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, on the whole, is not a record of doom-and-gloom. “Heavy metal drummer” is a pure nostalgia trip: “I sincerely miss those heavy metal bands / I used to go see on the landing in the summer,” Tweedy sings, and one pictures an 18-year old Jeff Tweedy drunkenly headbanging to a Guns N’ Roses cover band. It’s bittersweet, in a sense, because there comes a point in everyone’s life where worry supersedes carelessness. It becomes harder and harder to let loose. The chorus, in contrast, is miles removed from the desolation described in “Ashes of American Flags”: “I miss the innocence I’ve known / Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.”
“Heavy metal drummer” is upbeat; the guitars smile and bounce among lively piano chords that puncture the end of every measure. For a man opposed to poetry, Tweedy has a curious tendency to make a quiet phrase snap. “Unlock my body and move myself to dance” he whistles, memories of carefree summer nights populating his mind. Each song on YHF works together in the oddest of ways. “Heavy metal drummer” is followed by “I’m the man who loves you.” The latter song begins with a wink to the prior—a smooth and smothered guitar riff, Wilco performing their sincerest heavy metal tribute.
Early-album track “War on war” is arguably YHF‘s best song. Deceptively straightforward, the song is constantly in motion. Rhythmic distortion melts into an infectious guitar strum, with Tweedy chiming, “It’s a war on war, it’s a war on war.” The chorus betrays the lightness of the music: “You’re gonna lose / You have to lose / You have to learn how to die / If you want to, want to be alive.” Once again, worldly context and pure happenstance dictate the song’s interpretation. It’s an ominous precursor to the reality of a very real war, and a quietly damning statement on the uselessness of violence begetting violence.
On “Pot kettle black,” there is a less imposing statement that echoes the chorus of “War on war”: “But I’m not gonna get caught calling a pot kettle black / Every song is a comeback / Every moment’s a little bit later.” This could be Tweedy’s roundabout way of saying it’s impossible to plan for the future; hardships exists around every corner, and it’s a fool’s errand to formulate an answer, any answer, that would satisfy the randomness of life.
Penultimate track “Poor places” is perfectly scored by a luscious fusion of guitar and piano. Tweedy sounds increasingly desperate as the song moves forward; he references his own problems with alcoholism (“There’s bourbon on the breath of the singer you love so much”) and loneliness (“My voice is climbing walls / Smoking, and I want love”). In the midst of the other existential themes of YHF, these lines are positively human. The album’s final offering, “Reservations,” is a song of uncertainty. “How can I convince you it’s me I don’t like?” Tweedy asks. The track is a necessary capstone to an album informed by personal experiences; it’s an unequivocal confession that Tweedy, even at his most creatively fearless, still has doubts. But there’s something that keeps the song grounded—or rather, someone. “Oh I’ve got reservations about so many things / But not about you / It’s not about you.”
The future significance of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is unknown. That being said, it’s been fifteen years, and the album feels as fresh and relevant as day one. It’s a purely American record, a holistic document of a pre- and post-war emotions. It comes off as authentic because it is just that—authentic; YHF is unafraid to pose the kind of questions that beg for an answer. Each track is furiously independent, but when wrapped together, the full picture emerges. I’m convinced that picture looks different to each individual.
There is an irony sewn into Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: outward certainty and internal doubt walk hand-in-hand. That toeing of the line is what makes it so special. Feelings are either taken at face value or left completely unsaid. It is an album replete with thousands of small, intense moments, each burning hotter and brighter than the next. As I said before, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot lives and dies in that first minute of “I am trying to break your heart.” The instruments can’t quite find harmony; they are unsure of themselves, not confident to settle in any one place. Finally, through the clamor, a lone guitar breathes a soft rhythm, and a song is born. Tweedy sings “What was I thinking when I let you back in?” That question, as with so many others, doesn’t need to be answered. It is best left alone; the answer exists, no doubt, but it is somehow just out of reach.
Favorite tracks: “I am trying to break your heart,” “Radio cure,” “War on war,” “Jesus, etc.,” “Ashes of American Flags,” “Heavy metal drummer,” “Pot kettle black, “Poor places”