Wilco Arrive on New Shores with 'Cousin'

BY Clay GeddertPublished Sep 26, 2023

Bringing something new to the table after nearly three decades is never an easy task, nor is it the safe option. But with the help of a new producer with a fresh perspective on what their sound could be, Wilco venture into icy waters for their thirteenth studio album Cousin. Pushed by mercurial Welsh producer and songwriter Cate Le Bon to meet the melancholy of Jeff Tweedy's inimitable poetic instincts, the band sound renewed. 

To be a cousin is to be familiar yet disconnected, occupying a place between. As much as Tweedy's writing reflects the title, so too does Cousin's sound. The record is unmistakably Wilco, but only loosely related to the side of the family that bore their previous records. Tweedy sees himself as "cousin to the world," and feelings of strained relationships and yearning are mirrored by the production, which revels in stilted and disconnected tones. 

Wilco open the record on a cloudy wash of guitar before Tweedy emerges from the fog, "staring eye to eye." For the rest of "Infinite Surprise," the band are tossed between smooth waters and tingling swells of dissonance. As the storm fades out slowly, the receding tides are interrupted by a hot cable buzzing against the tip of a finger and what sounds like fireworks going off beneath a microwave cover — peace still isn't assured. 

Much of the record follows a similar formula. Glenn Kotche's typically raucous drumming is penned in, only allowed to break loose in the rarest of moments. Dynamic highs come rarely, but carry more weight due to their scarcity — liminal moments that would normally be filled with rollicking licks or luscious jams are now coloured by brooding sonic baths. Optimistic moments pass in brief flashes while longing fills the space between. 

The bulk of the record is spent building tension, a slow climb to the title track's worthy climax. "Cousin" is a tense push and pull of identity diffusion — "When your red lines / Get crossed with mine / I object to you," Tweedy sings as the song morphs around him. This tension is the perfect tonal centre for the record, right at the confluence of familiarity, grievance, conflict and trepidatious hope: "You're my cousin / My cousin / I'm You."

After the cathartic release of "Cousin" and "Pittsburgh," a cautious levity and hope return for the final two tracks. Wilco often moves from dark to light — they rarely leave one wallowing in dread. Cousin is certainly meant to be digested whole; without the brightness of its finale, the album would feel altogether too morose. Instead, after wrestling through loneliness and disconnection, Tweedy leaves us with this bit of optimism on closer "Meant to Be": "Holding our hearts closer together / Keeping to ourselves an empty sea / So we can believe / Our love is meant to be."

Wilco have toiled for many years to earn the trust of their listeners, and they're cashing in on that trust with Cousin. They haven't lost the heart of their sound, only shown it in a new light. If last year's Cruel Country was a nod to their country roots, then Cousin is a departure from those origins in favour of new sonic shores.
(dBpm Records)

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