Sky Blue Sky is exactly like Wilco's other preternaturally affecting releases—in that it's nothing like them. It's absorbing and, in its own awkward, self-effacing way, beautiful. This record is far less overt than anything else Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy has crafted; it's aged and adult, more explicitly sad, and less explicitly sardonic. The disc exists in a level artistic space, unlike Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, recent Wilco efforts that were immediately claimed as favorites—and not entirely because that era was defined by Tweedy's constant migraines, painkiller addiction and rehab stint, and the band's label drama and gutting rock doc I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, all of which positioned rock-band destruction and excess in a middle-class way.
This unabashedly straightforward album highlights Tweedy's primary (and unenviable) cultural gig of personifying tortured Everyman malaise. Tweedy has come off as a nightmare of neuroses, and Sky Blue Sky is imbued with middle-age depression not heard since the Wrens dropped their perfect divorce saga Meadowlandsin 2003. Sky Blue Skytracks such as "Please Be Patient With Me" and "Either Way" speak of an endless existential crisis and the wife who lives through it.
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Light counters the dark, though: The album often couples the simple sweetness of early Beatles numbers with blowsy musicality, all the better to exhibit the band's talents. Many of the songs, most significantly "You Are My Face" and "Shake It Off," feature a slide from tightly played dourness into ax-waxing and weaving, heartache shanties. "Hate It Here" sounds like an '80s bar-band croon, and "Walken" is a plucky jitterbug. This album will be a delight to play live. It was clearly conceived as a solid group effort, and Tweedy's lyrics have much interpretive potential—though "sadness" as a theme does have limitations.