In this essay, I take a close look at Wilco’s fourth LP, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, in an effort to discover why this album has fascinated me for so many years. What follows is a song-by-song exploration of the record.
YHF is where I caught up with Wilco. That fact, in and of itself, is probably one giant cliché. After all, there are few records that were more celebrated in the early 2000’s than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s where everyone caught up with Wilco. I will fully embrace that I jumped on this bandwagon. I had to: everyone was talking about it like it was the cure for cancer, *literally* the most important record EVAR.
But I did resist (at first)! I was aware of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the big frickin’ deal that was Wilco for months, even years, before that. My high school anatomy teacher had owned one of their alt-country records (Being There) and brought it to class to show off (which was weird at the time, but OK), and Summerteeth was kind of a big deal when it hit in 1999 (I think people were comparing it to Pet Sounds, which was the ultimate praise at that point), and I was just fascinated by that title and that cover. But I’m no music snob if I don’t do my damndest to resist the lure of what’s happenin’ now down at the local five-and-dime.
You know what did it? That cover. Lordy. That cover still fascinates me to this day. It’s an image of Chicago’s Marina Towers (apparently), and I knew they were buildings, but they looked like some kind of space age radio beacons, and there’s some kinda powerful visual poetry going on there that tugged at my imagination whenever I saw it (which, again, in 2002, was just about any and every website in the indie corner of the interweb). Wilco is pretty good at album covers.
So…I bought it.
All these years later, I’m a huge Wilco fan. I’d list them in my Top 5 bands at least, maybe even Top 3. And it all started with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and I’d still call it my favorite Wilco record.
It’s a damn near perfect little thing, a fascinating blend of paradoxes. It’s groovy, and it makes you think. It’s dense with ambience, and it’s easy to sing along with. It’s experimental, and really catchy. Yessir. Like any true classic, it’s just so singable, it might as well have been titled “Our Future Greatest Hits”.
After dozens, maybe hundreds of listens to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I think this is a record about human communication, and more specifically, the difficulties therein. The meta-significance of that idea is all over the place. Lyrically, there’s poetic obscurity and heart-on-sleeve sincerity. Sonically, you’ve got all the noise, threatening to drown out the main themes at just about every turn. You’ve got deliberate misspellings in song titles (“Kamera”), strange grammar (“Jesus Etc.”), and the overriding meta-theme of radio communication, embodied most prominently in the record’s title, which refers to a Ham radio broadcast.
There’s so much that could be said about this record, and I’d like to write an actual book about it one day (more about that below). In said book, I’d go into all of the odds and ends associated with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: the dispute with the record label, the release of the record for free, the falling out between Tweedy and Bennett, the change of drummers, all of the tracks that got cut, all of the demos that are available out there if you’re willing to dig enough, etc etc. But for now, I’ll just focus on the songs, and the things that (I think) I’ve discovered in them over many years and many listens…
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
“What was I thinking when I let go of you?”
My mind immediately wants to draw parallels between Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and OK Computer. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but maybe it begins with the first track. Like OK Computer’s “Airbag”, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is a classic album opener, a swaggering manifesto of creative intent. Lyrically, it expands the poetic palette. Sonically, it declares that anything is possible.
While the song’s title is a very direct statement of intent, the song itself is nowhere near as direct. What in the world is an “American aquarium drinker”? What does it mean to “assassin” down the avenue? Is the big city “blinking”, or is the song’s subject?
Sonically, it’s no less strange. After opening with a drum beat that flies in from out of nowhere, the song hovers with little in the way of percussion except for an ambient assortment of clocks, bells, crotales (???), and other percussive sources. Even though the opening drum beat keeps time, it eventually fades into nothingness, giving way to a strummed acoustic guitar. Yet the ambient riches continue. The song stretches the normal language of the rock song, a language they had essentially embraced on their first few records, and even on the somewhat experimental “Summerteeth”. There are cellos, pianos, vibraphones, organs…who knows what else? Probably a kitchen sink.
Yet even so, this is really a very simple song. In fact, in terms of the traditional pop song structure, it’s barely even a song, consisting as it does of a 3 chord repetition and verses with almost no chorus. Given that, it’s fascinating to me what an incredible song it is. It’s a strong case study in how the simplest forms of art can often be the most engaging. There are only 3 chords in the song (B – F#m – E), but it’s literally the bells, whistles, and other sonic toys that make it what it is.
In the end, despite all of the lyrical ambiguity and sonic experimentation, the song arrives back at the direct declaration of the title: “I am trying to break your heart.” Sure, we’re quickly throwing out non-sequitirs again soon, but for one brief moment, the song shows its hand: the goal here is to break your heart. But isn’t that what any good songwriter should do?
While it seemed like nothing was out of bounds on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, “Kamera” reverses course and opts for extreme sonic restraint. In fact, it’s the most restrained song on the record, and maybe even the most restrained track in Wilco’s catalog.
“Kamera” sounds like something straight out of the 70’s to me. In my mind, I always liken it to Steely Dan, though judge for yourself whether that be an apt comparison or no. However, for a band that’s often derisively labelled dad-rock, “Kamera” is a shining example of that pseudo-genre.
So what’s the song about? My best guess is that it has to do with losing track of one’s own life and history through the aging process. The song longs for a camera to keep track of lies, echoes, and memories of days past. The line “memories distort” is key. Were the good ol’ days really all that good? Because every day they fade more and more, and the way we remember it may not be the way it actually was.
Maybe the most and least important question here is why “Kamera” is spelled with a “K” in the song’s title. I really have no idea. I could undertake some serious speculation about the seemingly minor detail here (call it my Pitchfork audition if you will), but I think it’s just that quirky little touches like spelling “Camera” with a “K” enhance the distinctive weirdness of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Even straightforward things are just a little bit fussy here.
“Distance has no way of making love understandable…”
I’ll be honest: if I was held at gunpoint and forced to denounce one song from YHF, it would probably be “Radio Cure”. It’s the song I’m most likely to skip over when I’m listening to the record. It’s a song that never seems to arrive anywhere, and a song that never seems to grab you like so many of the other songs do. In short: it’s the only song on the album that takes work to get in to.
And yet, it may be the most crucial song on the record, for those very reasons. If the album were to proceed from “Kamera” to “War on War”, it might feel a little too much like a greatest hits record, total bowling alley music. But “Radio Cure” forces you to pay closer attention, to slow down. It’s the speed bump on this racetrack, and it begins to really put the rest of the record in perspective.
As I see it, this is a song all about the problem of communication. How do you translate the things within you so that they are understandable to others? How do you bridge the distance between two souls? That’s the “Radio Cure”, right? Radio being the thing that allows for efficient communication across great distances, a cure for so many problems.
Yet I also think this is a song more specifically about being overwhelmed with creative notions, with ideas inside of you that are struggling to get out. Any creative person knows that feeling: you have something beautiful or otherwise wonderful that you want to unleash upon the world, but the process of getting it out can be a painful one. When your mind is filled with such “silvery stars”, it can feel like something is indeed wrong with you, especially if you are unable to make those silvery stars real for other people.
But the song is likely about physical distance as well. After all, that’s the central problem here: “distance has no way of making love understandable.”
War on War
“You have to learn how to die / If you wanna wanna be alive”
It’s about this point where a first-time listener might suspect this is going to be a truly great album. “War On War” is simply a fun song, sounding light-hearted but still pretty deep when you give a thought to the lyrics. It’s probably my favorite track on the record: so singable and propulsive, a great use of feedback. And the lyrics may be simple, but the couple of ideas they express are so powerful.
The title is a great one, a paradox of paradoxes, unceasingly fruitful poetically and philosophically. Therefore, it makes for a great song lyric. It’s the kind of loosely ironic concept that Wilco wields so well: funny, but thoughtful, even dark.
And then that bitter reminder: “You have to learn how to die / If you wanna be alive.” How many great philosophies have been built on such an idea?
And how appropriate is it that a song invoking Jesus is preceded by an idea so powerfully elucidated in the gospels: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” In other words, if you want to obtain everlasting life, you have to learn how to die every day.
“Our love is all of God’s money”
Speaking of the gospels, one of the most powerful moments in any of the four comes in the Gospel of John, when Jesus visits the tomb of his friend Lazarus. In the face of death, what does He do? The God-man weeps.
Because of that, I can’t help but imagine JT singing this song to the Lord. Even so, I’m not really sure that’s what it’s about, much less what role Jesus actually plays in the song. Is this a song about Jesus, or a song addressed to Jesus, or a song addressed to someone else that just happens to begin with an exasperated utterance of the Messiah’s name (i.e. taking the Lord’s name in vain, not judging though, just thinking out loud!)? I don’t have a strong opinion on any of these options.
As a Christian myself though, I have to wonder about it as if it were addressed to Jesus himself, standing at the tomb of Lazarus, weeping over the human ruin of death. Seen from this perspective, the song becomes even more affecting in its melancholy. Each of the stars may be setting suns, but how appropriate does that seem for any one human life? Aren’t each of us, in our own way stars, shining in the night sky? Shall not each of us set, like any one of them? Indeed, should we hope, like the stars, to rise again?
And that’s only the first verse!
Yet what steals the show here is that haunting image, “tall buildings shake”, made even more potent by the fact that this track was recorded in 2001 shortly before the 9/11 attacks, and released along with the album the week after. I don’t want to get too much into the spooky coincidence of that, and it if it were just that one lyric, I might not think too much of it. However, when you add in the “twin towers” of the album’s cover (again, chosen well in advance of the 9/11 attacks), it’s hard to not to wonder what kind of message the universe may or may not be sending to listeners of this record. Sorry to anyone who thinks that’s silly or just too much. But I wouldn’t be a record geek if I didn’t latch on to seemingly random parallelisms like that.
Overall, what a song! It’s freaking beautiful, whether you get the lyrics or not. Track five is probably the best of the bunch, and deserves to be thought of as the centerpiece of the record. It hews more towards the restraint of “Kamera”, but on top of that restraint are some powerful and cathartic jolts of pathos and melancholy glory. And that fiddle – wowzers.
But this song is about everything. And that’s what makes it so powerful.
Ashes of American Flags
“I know I would die if I could come back new”
I used not to think too much of being American. I don’t mean I despised being American: I was proud enough of my country and its contributions to the world. I simply mean that for much of my life, up to a certain point, being American simply seemed normal, vanilla, nothing fancy. To not be American would be to be strange in this modern world. America was the center of everything: the world, culture, history, etc etc.
That all really began to change on 9/11, and thereafter. I guess that’s when things got messy, for me at least.
The truth is, America, just like any other nation, is only exceptional like your own family seems exceptional to you. While America looms large in the history of the last few centuries, so did Babylon, Rome, and Greece at varying times (among countless other nations).
I feel like that’s what Tweedy is getting at here. Thus far, we’ve been veering back and forth between traditional song structures and more experimental ones. While we don’t veer quite as far into experimental and difficult territory here as we did on “Radio Cure”, this is not the poppy glide of “Kamera” either. Like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, this cut seems built more around the poetry of the lyrics than a particular riff or groove.
The image of American flag ashes is highly provocative. For decades (maybe longer), Americans have argued vociferously about whether the burning of the American flag should fall under the category of protected speech. Those who say it should usually advance the argument that the right to make such a politically charged statement is what makes America a nation worth loving and supporting anyway. There are far too many nations where it is unacceptable to do such a thing. Those who argue against it claim that it is an act of betrayal, a desecration of something sacred, like peeing on the grave of veterans who gave their lives in one of the nation’s wars.
So when Tweedy sings, near the end of wanting “to salute the ashes of American flags”, it might be intended as a truly patriotic statement. Indeed, I suspect the overall theme of this song is to question “What are our freedoms even for?” Maybe it’s about consumerism, maybe about the “American Dream”, maybe it’s just a song about feeling sad at the apparent vapidness of such things (“I want a good life / with a nose for things / a fresh wind and bright sky / to enjoy my suffering”).
Also, not to beat the Jesus drum too much here, but let’s be honest: that idea of dying “to come back new” is, again, a central gospel idea. So maybe there’s something in there about the idea of saluting the ashes of something sacred: the realization that, in order for something to be renewed to its truer and greater purpose, it often has to die.
Heavy Metal Drummer
“I miss the innocence I’ve known”
Many writers have suggested that, with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, America got its own Radiohead. The comparison has always seemed a strong one to me. Radiohead transformed from another mid-90’s alt-rock band into experimental rock geniuses with the release of OK Computer in 1997. Similarly, with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco went from alt-country favorites to experimental rock wizards widely celebrated in the music press.
However, while on some level I still believe the comparison has some basis, Radiohead never had quite the flare for the lighthearted moment that Wilco do. I’m a total Head-head and all, but Radiohead left humor behind back around “Pop Is Dead” (thank God). Wilco, on the other hand, has learned to incorporate a strong sense of humor into their output in a way that never comes off as simple kitsch or goofiness. Even the strange phenomenon of their 2015 record Star Wars, with its cat-art cover, somehow comes of as simply Wilco-esque artsiness (at least for me, it put cat art into a whole new perspective).
I believe “Heavy Metal Drummer” is a huge moment where the band realized this was a niche they could carve for themselves. To be sure, I’m not actually asserting that “Heavy Metal Drummer” is a silly song. It certainly sounds light-hearted, and it’s easily the most catchy song on the record. But when I really take in these lyrics, for all of their sing-song-ness, I truly believe there is a deep longing in this record. I was never much into heavy metal, but I do remember having a lot of fun going to see local bands play in high school. So I know what the song is getting at when it stresses that this is sincere.
“Heavy Metal Drummer” is a nostalgic trip to be sure, the sort of nostalgia that can look back at good times past and remember them fondly for what they were, despite the embarrassing photographs, the shiny pants, and the bleached-blond hair. I can think of few things more endearingly human.
I’m the Man Who Loves You
“I couldn’t tell if it would bring my heart the way I wanted when I started writing this letter to you”
Not that it ever really went away, but the theme of miscommunication reemerges with a vengeance on “I’m the Man Who Loves You”. After all, it’s a song about writing a letter to tell someone how much you love them, even while realizing that the most efficient way to communicate that love is simply by holding the beloved’s hand. The action speaks more loudly and clearly than the words, especially the words on the paper.
Musically, I’d highlight that jittery lead guitar that introduces the song, and jumps in in various places. The first time you hear it, you think “This guy can’t play guitar!” However, it becomes clear that the jittery, sloppy playing is intentional. Not only that, I believe it’s mimetic: an effort to imitate musically the feeling being communicated, the sense of fumbling over oneself trying to communicate something as big and glorious and beautiful as love.
Pot Kettle Black
“Every song’s a comeback”
If “Radio Cure” is the most difficult song on the record, “Pot Kettle Black” feels like the most throwaway and forgettable of the bunch. Every classic record is going to have at least one song like that. Born in the USA has “I’m Goin’ Down”, OK Computer has “Electioneering”, Rumours has “I Don’t Want to Know”, and so on. Even still, “Pot Kettle Black” is a cut I’ve grown to appreciate. It falls on the same range of the poppy–experimental spectrum as “Kamera” and “Heavy Metal Drummer”, and it’s got its own charm, despite its plain Jane status among such a crowd of beauties.
And yeah, it furthers the communication theme in a big way. After all, have you ever thought about what it means for the pot to call the kettle black? It’s the old “log in the eye” syndrome: in other words, hypocrisy. Lyrically then, this is a song dealing with a person that doesn’t recognize their own moral blindness, even when they rail against that moral failing in someone else.
“I really want to see you tonight”
You do know that, on an 11 track album, track 10 is where you’re supposed to put the hidden gem that seems like filler but is really the most important and fascinating song, right? Of course you do, because everybody knows that. And Wilco does too, because that’s where “Poor Places” ended up.
I’d call “Poor Places” the doctoral thesis of the experiment that was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It seems to tie together all of the threads woven throughout the nine previous tracks. It’s a song of lovely-strange lyrical non-sequiturs layered over a gorgeous melody, with all of the soundscapes heretofore explored seemingly finding space for existence in the final static and cacophony.
In a word, “Poor Places” seems like a dream to me, an impressionistic journey of memorable visions that seem like they must signify something, but what they do is really anyone’s guess. The “sailors” Tweedy invokes remind me of the sea, and so part of me feels like this is a launching off point. But into what? I don’t know – some kind of great mystery. I dig such songwriting. Of course, it ends with that unforgettable snippet from The Conet Project, the exotic-voiced gal repeating “Yankee – Hotel – Foxtrot” from some mysterious locale across the globe, or maybe even across Space-Time for all we know.
All I really know is I love this track, and it makes me feel all cosmic and mystical up in the mind-palace.
“I’ve always been distant and I’ve always told lies for love”
“Reservations” may well be the most vulnerable and direct song on the album. The lyrics are the least obscure of any of the album’s cuts, and the music itself brings a melodic pathos matched only by “Jesus, Etc”. For a record ostensibly about mixed signals and miscommunication, it certainly seems to end on a bald-faced declaration of love.
Still, as I ponder it, it’s that very last line that makes me think there may be more going on here than a tender and romantic confessional: “It’s not about you.” Before this, the song *seems* focused on a happy end of sorts. Yet that last line sounds, well, sad, like this is a breakup song. We’re talking about the sort of breakup that is about the person doing the breaking up rather than anything wrong with the person being dumped. Indeed, the subject may not have reservations about this person, but maybe it’s something wrong with themselves, a feeling of unworthiness.
So even as things seem final, clear, finished, and direct, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot ends on a question mark, fittingly matched by several minutes of beautiful ambience.
As I said before, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album that deserves a book more than just an article. It’s the most pivotal moment in a great band’s career, and one of the great albums of its decade and in all of rock history. It’s creatively ambitious, and it encapsulates a period when a lot was going on with the band and in American society at large.
My goal here has been to explain something of my reaction to each song in an effort to explore the meaning and significance of those songs. I’d love to hear from other fans of this record regarding their thoughts on its various songs, and on the significance of the whole record.
In a future book, I’d like to further explore these songs, as well as all of the other music that came out of this period, such as the EP More Like the Moon and the various unreleased demos that are floating around as bootlegs. I’d also like to explore the various reactions to the record, what others thought about it, and the effect it had on the band’s career. If that sounds like something you might be interested to read one day, drop me a line and let me know!