Author:Daniel Cook Johnson
Or to give its full title: Wilcopedia – A Comprehensive Guide to the Music of America’s Best Band. It uses the template of books like “Revolution in the Head”, most of its bulk utilised for a song-by-song run-through of Wilco’s entire output. Starting with Jeff Tweedy’s contributions to Uncle Tupelo’s song catalogue, going up to present day (not including this year’s “Ode To Joy”), and including the Wilco/Tweedy contributions to the “Mermaid Avenue” albums. Before this extensive run-through we get the author’s introduction, a prologue chapter on Wilco’s rise from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo and an introduction of all band members, past and present (not many compared to The Fall, but more than your average band).
After the four long chapters of song descriptions, album by album in chronological order, and a fifth on their live releases, we get short chapters on Wilco’s film- and TV appearances, a run-through of songs they’ve covered and finally the part I’m guessing that most of us skip in books like these (I know I do): notes & sources and an index of the songs and albums.
The author is a fan and completist collector who used to write about everything Wilco for a website, and he writes that he wants this book to be “part reference, part history, part critical overview.” I’m not certain if he manages the final part as well as he manages the first two. Critical viewpoints mainly get a mention through quotes from other writer’s reviews, and he’ll then act as defence lawyer for most of them. That’s not a big problem – certainly not for me, as I can find very little fault with anything that Jeff Tweedy does – but I find it a slightly bigger problem that the author doesn’t give much strong personal opinion at all, negative or positive, in his account of the albums and songs. Also I thought it could have used some more breakdown of the songs: technical details of their structure, production, lyrics etc. That was what “Revolution in the Head” did so successfully, describing the over-familiar in a detailed and opinionated way that forced you to listen to the music in a new and different manner and hear details as for the first time; making you form your opinion again – agreeing or disagreeing with MacDonald’s views – sometimes actually changing your opinion of a song from the routine one you formed half a lifetime ago.
However, this book does well with finding interesting quotes from articles and reviews, providing different perspectives and information, from journalists and band members (but the author has not talked to anyone from Wilco himself for this book). The author also has one particular niche obsession about how often every song have been played live, by the band and Jeff Tweedy solo. It gets to a point where it almost becomes annoying, especially for tracks that just barely get a few sentences of information, but at the end of the text you’ll find out exactly how many times it’s been trotted out live…
On the whole it’s the sort of book that I normally love, about a band that I adore, so I feel that I probably should have liked it more than I did – a lot of my feelings of slight disappointment can definitely be attributed to the fact that reading it as a pdf file on a screen (a first for me) felt so wrong and annoying to me as an avid book-reader, that I found it difficult to fully process what I was reading. Trying to dip in and out of it again after my first read-through to prepare for this review (and dipping in and out of a pdf-file was also very trying) made me see that at least some of the criticism I had originally noted down wasn’t completely fair, and had probably been tainted by my negative experience with the format. Which is why I’m a bit cautious about either recommending it whole-heartedly or criticising it too strongly – I don’t think I was able to fully get to grips with its content, reading it in a format that apparently doesn’t suit me at ALL!
Still: a big thank you to @Bargepole for providing the opportunity to read this, sorry about the delay (I’ve been struggling with this review for quite a while now!)
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Well, fans of Wilco of course.
I find it impossible to judge whether it would be suitable as an introduction to the band for people not that familiar with their music already but wanting to find out more, or if it’s strictly for the fans. But if you’re not a fan – would you read a book like this? The super-fans of Wilco will of course know most of the information given (but they will also have the completist streak in them to make this a must-buy anyway…!)
One thing you’ve learned
One detail I wasn’t aware of is that the background chorus on “I’m Always In Love” goes “smoke pot, smoke pot”, which is something you don’t hear until you’re told (we’re also told that it’s in hommage to “I Am the Walrus”, but it reminds me more of the “Come Together” “shoot me” intro, as in being equally indecipherable without knowledge beforehand).