“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance might have been taking stock of the wild west as a lawless place, but he could have just as easily been referring to the music industry in the early 2000s.
Despite the rising prevalence of the internet, physical album sales were still a major financial windfall for record companies. In 2002 alone, approximately 650 million CD albums were sold across the globe, bringing in billions of dollars of revenue to companies like Sony and Warner Music Group. It was still a great time to make money by playing music, as seen by the large swathes of alternative artists who were still signed to major labels.
One of those bands was Wilco, the scrappy Chicago indie band formed by lead singer Jeff Tweedy after the breakup of his alternative country outfit Uncle Tupelo. When that band split in two, Warner Music Group kept both factions in their ranks with Jay Farrar’s Son Volt landing on Warner Bros. Records while Wilco landed on one of the label’s subsidiaries, Reprise Records. In both cases, Warner believed that some modest success and cult followings for the bands could drum up some nice business.
But Wilco was changing rapidly. Members came and went as Tweedy decided to largely abandon his initial country leanings. As the band became more experimental, their relationship with drummer Ken Coomer deteriorated, and soon collaborator Jim O’Rourke brought in Glenn Kotche to take over the drum stool.
Coomer wouldn’t be the only member of the band to be ousted before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot eventually saw the light of day. Multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett originally envisioned playing a major part in the album’s production, serving as an engineer and mixer. However, Tweedy and Bennett clashed and a power struggle soon developed. O’Rourke stepped in to redo Bennett’s initial mixes, and the ill feelings that surrounded the situation led to Bennett’s dismissal from the band after the recording was complete.
During this entire period, director Sam Jones was shooting a documentary around the making of the album. Jones initially started filming after Coomer’s departure and expected the completion of the album to serve as his film’s ending. Little did he know that the story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was just starting to get exciting.
While the band were in the studio, a corporate merger ousted Reprise Records president Howie Klein. Klein was responsible for signing Wilco and employed a hands-off approach, allowing the band to work without interference. As Klein departed, Wilco’s biggest supporter at Reprise was now gone, and new representatives stepped in with a less than favourable view of the band. The difficulty within the group and their previous independence caused them to ignore the requests made by their new higher-ups.
Mio Vukovic became the man who oversaw the progress of the album, and his relationship with the band quickly turned adversarial. “He asked us to make some changes,” Tweedy told The Chicago Tribune in 2001. “He told us more things needed to be done for it to be finished, and we said, ‘This is it. We’re done with this record and we’re happy with it.'” When it eventually reached the new label president David Kahne, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was met with resistance that eventually bloomed into full-on rejection.
During a particularly low moment, Vukovic suggested that if the band wanted to put out the album they should do it themselves. With Wilco refusing to make changes, a buy-out was quickly organised that saw Wilco depart Reprise Records. Now left without a record label, Tweedy took Vukovic’s offhand remark and began to seriously consider it. No major act had ever self-released their own album online for free, but when Wilco got the rights back to Yanke Hotel Foxtrot for free, Tweedy decided to do just that.
This is all the legend, spurred on by that specific Chicago Tribune article, Jones’ documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, and Wilco’s eventual signing to Nonesuch Records, another subsidiary of Warner Music. The major narrative was that Wilco came out on top: Warner Music paid for the album twice, and thanks to the hordes of fans who heard the album for free, a built-in audience already existed before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was officially released on April 23rd, 2002.
In a strange way, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is impossible to listen to without a specific kind of context around it. For many, that context is the label fight that eventually made Wilco one of the most championed bands of the early 2000s. For others, it’s the acrimonious conflicts and struggles within the group that were captured in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. And for others still, it’s the shadow of 9/11 that hung over the album’s original self-release a week after the attacks when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot became a strange beacon for hope and optimism, underscored by the strange prescience of songs like ‘War on War’ and ‘Ashes of American Flags’.
With all of that context surrounding the LP, it’s nearly impossible to hear Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on its own merits. But the album is still rewarding when divorced from everything that surrounds it. Bursting with life, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is more playful than some its more sombre moments would have you believe. The silliness and sarcasm behind tracks like ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ and ‘Pot Kettle Black’ are buoyed by bright acoustic guitars, soaring keyboards, and a positively vibrant production style that seems miles away from the conflict that is entrenched within the album’s DNA.
With your brain turned off, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is just a really fun indie rock album, nothing more and nothing less. Tweedy occasionally transcends into rarified air, like on the yearning ‘Jesus, Etc.’ and the swirling melancholy of ‘Reservations’, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot doesn’t aim to define a generation, or even the situation that surrounded the band at the time. It’s a workman-like album, created by a band just trying to survive and put out the best material that they could conjure up at the time.
That narrative doesn’t really fit with the legend, but it’s the most refreshing way to revisit an album that’s become a sort of mile marker for the evolution of popular music. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot works best when none of the realities around it come into play. Instead, when you get lost in its own little world, the album becomes a charming and surprisingly light recollection trying to fit the pieces together the best way he knows how. That can be quite monumental all its own, but it’s not legendary, even if Yankee Hotel Foxtrot now is.