The nation has selected a new musical champion, and he sings with a twang. This week, American Idol crowned Noah Thompson, a scruffy-goateed 20-year-old construction worker from Kentucky, as its 20th season’s winner. On his debut single, “One Day Tonight,” Thompson imagines giving a girlfriend all that she pines for: a diamond ring, a fixer-upper in Denver, a honeymoon in Vegas. He’s singing about love—but also about America, where dreams and destinations glitter like baubles in a shop.
Familiar tunes, familiar desires, familiar terrain: This is the stuff of country music, that stridently American art form. Even the genre’s renegades, the ones critiquing Nashville’s conformist streak or agitating against gun culture, perform a similar feat to Thompson’s in cleverly redrawing a map of places and feelings that the listener, intrinsically, knows. (On Miranda Lambert’s mischievous new album, for example, one song reworks Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” with the name “Geraldene.”) This week brings a strange and wonderful entry into that tradition with Cruel Country, Wilco’s 12th album.
Wilco are art-rock legends, but back in the ’90s, the band’s fiddle-laden jams about gambling and drinking got labeled “alt-country.” After pushing in all sorts of exploratory directions over subsequent decades, the band reset its sound in response to the COVID-19 crisis. In Cruel Country’s press notes, the singer Jeff Tweedy explains that “looking for novel shapes” in such a disorienting time felt wrong. “So Country and Folk songs started happening,” he writes. “Loads of them.” Loads is right: At 21 tracks long, Cruel Country joins a trend of artists uncorking pandemic backlogs with double or interlinked albums.
This wealth of music is heart-stoppingly beautiful: the work of a master band making the most lovely noises it can think of. The prime attraction is guitars—including folky varieties such as Dobro, lap steel, and baritone guitar—that interweave with the haphazard, rhythmic grace of rustling branches. Tweedy’s husky sighs and questioning choruses are generally a little more straightforward and accessible than is usual for him (“Talk to me / I don’t want to hear poetry,” he chides on “The Universe”). Though shuffle rhythms and Roy Orbison–style yowls crop up, a number of tracks, such as the nearly eight-minute-long new-age cryfest of “Many Worlds,” feel more suited to candle-lit meditation than barn dancing.
Still, the album is country in that it makes you think about a very specific country. “Dangerous dreams have been detected / Streaming over the southern border,” Tweedy sings in the album’s first line, conjuring U.S. immigration debates. Soon after, the title track celebrates “my country, stupid and cruel / Red / White / And blue.” Yes, a reparations-supporting liberal singer is airing political concerns once again. Tweedy’s press notes say that he felt like he needed to write about the “problematic natures” of both country music and America. But he’s making collages, not manifestos. The listener has to guess at why these songs, one way or another, address a feeling of hopelessness.
Which means that, as is often the case with Wilco and with country music, society and the soul get conflated across the album. The stunning “Bird Without a Tail / Base of My Skull” rambles like the Allman Brothers Band as Tweedy strings together metaphors charting a path from despair to contentment to death. Is the song a parable about civilization, or about the ever-seesawing experience of life? Similarly, when Tweedy muses on “Hints” that “There is no middle when the other side / Would rather kill than compromise,” his lines can’t help but do double duty. A civil war brews in the singer, and around him.
Perhaps indie rock doesn’t need another moan of 21st-century disaffection. Thankfully, Cruel Country is the most effective entry in Wilco’s long, sustained attempt to move away from the bleakness that defined it two decades ago (a move in line with Tweedy’s personal story of handling addiction, depression, and debilitating migraines). Again and again, the songs create the sensation of solving, or at least calling a truce with, great problems: the inexorability of history, the overwhelmingness of now, and the guarantee of loss. On “Tonight’s the Day,” Tweedy decides that whatever is “Between hard and easy / Surrender and escape” is “the only way.” Later on the album, he sings, “The best I can do / Is try to be happy,” and adds, “In a sad kinda way.”
In the context of the album’s national themes, Tweedy’s hunt for serenity can feel, at times, oddly like patriotism. Reflecting on the suffering happening in every corner of the globe, “All Across the World” hits upon a sheepish Toby Keith–ism: “I’m sorry, I’m glad I’m where I am.” I must say, the song sounds slightly less wise after this week’s uniquely American horror in Texas. But Tweedy’s not being jingoistic; he’s trying to reckon with having a spot in a place, a species, and an existence that is doomed one way or another. On “The Universe,” he looks at the stars and realizes that the here and now is “the only place / There is to be.” This cosmic thought is country music at its kindest—situating our lives in a way that makes them feel small, and thus precious.