Wilco’s fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, was a landmark release for US rock music. Connecting with a whole new audience, frontman Jeff Tweedy’s songs of existential doubt made for not only the group’s most successful album, but also for a musical breakthrough, as the experimental urges hinted at on previous records now took centre stage. Still, the album’s gestation proved difficult.
Listen to ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ here.
“I’d started writing in my own voice”
The material itself was not a problem, Tweedy and co-writer Jay Bennett’s songs showed a progression from the group’s 1996’s rootsy double album, Being There, and 1999’s Summerteeth, Wilco’s love letter to the classic 60s pop of bands such as The Beach Boys and The Zombies. By Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Tweedy had embraced his own style. “I’d started writing in my own voice,” he told Record Collector magazine in 2019. “I realised that nobody was covering my songs, nobody was taking them and making them their own, so I might as well stop using that as some kind of criteria as to whether a song’s good.”
This proved the catalyst for some of the most enduring music of Tweedy’s career, as he became increasingly interested in documenting the minutiae of modern US life. “I was trying to put it in perspective for myself,” he told Bob Mehr in the sleevenotes of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s 2022 reissue. “How can there be all these good things and things that I love about America, alongside all of these things that I’m ashamed of? And that was an internal question, too; I think I felt that way about myself.”
“I wanted to make something I hadn’t heard before – it’s kind of impossible to do”
It became apparent early in the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions that Tweedy’s bleary, anxiety-laced songs required a musical setting that was every bit as inquisitive. Recording began in earnest in the band’s Chicago studio, The Loft, in March 2000. From the off, Wilco looked to explore the possibilities that the material opened up, resulting in the many disparate takes of songs such as Kamera, which feature on the 2022 deluxe edition of the album. “There are songs started from the middle, songs started from the end… every which way,” Jay Bennett told journalist Robert Loerzel in 2002. “We just went through so many permutations.”