When someone calls an album “minor”, it’s almost always taken as derogatory, which is understandable. Sometimes it’s due to the album’s atypical origin (such as Radiohead’s Amnesiac), or because the album has a more intimate, subdued sound than is typical of the artist’s canon (like Coldplay’s Ghost Stories). Whist most of these albums fade from the cultural memory, some of them have gone on to become their creator’s most influential work, like Nebraska, or 808’s and Heartbreak. This is seemingly what Wilco are aiming for with the amusingly titled Schmilco, an intentionally “small” album; one with a much more subdued sound than their most recent record, Star Wars. Whilst it doesn’t quite match up to their best work, it’s nonetheless a solid addition to the Wilco canon.
Star Wars had a very loose, garage-rock feel, with its gritty, rough recordings, and odd song structures setting it apart from the band’s previous work. Schmilco feels like somewhat of a reaction to that record, an attempt to make something more simple and accessible. However, whilst the title gives the impression that the album is just tossed off, there’s an impressive amount of depth to Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting this time around.
In place of the fuzzy guitars of Star Wars, or the electronic weirdness of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Schmilco is largely a collection of acoustic ballads, with the odd jam thrown in. The only track that approaches the band’s experimental past is Common Sense, which sounds creepy and out of place on this album with it’s swampy guitars, and minor-key squeals, but would likely sound pretty standard on one of their older releases.
The song that best demonstrates the style, and strengths of the album is If I Ever Was a Child. The instrumental is mostly just acoustic strumming over a laid back drum beat, anchored by a loose bassline. This minimal backing gives Tweedy a lot of room to express himself, which he does with aplomb. He sings about contemporary anxiety through a veil of quirky metaphors, but they all hide a real pathos – “I saw behind my brain, a haunted stain / it never fades”. The opening track Normal American Kids sees Tweedy singing about feeling alienated as a child. Someone to Lose is seemingly about being afraid of commitment. Locator is about feeling uncomfortable in our heavily-surveilled age. The entire album just radiates anxiety and self-loathing, which the spare, acoustic soundscapes help render in sharp focus.
Unfortunately, even over a brief 36 minutes, the album does grow a little tiresome. The songs all have similar tempos, and whilst Tweedy’s lyrics are exceptional, his melodies sometimes feel a little boilerplate, without the disguise of the instrumental craziness Wilco are known for. Nonetheless, Schmilco is a solid album, and it’s worth the price of entry for Tweedy’s lyricism alone. It may not measure up to the band’s greatest achievements, but Schmilco is a great reminder of why so many people love Wilco.