One thing that's immediately apparent in talking to Wilco guitarist Nels Cline: While founding frontman Jeff Tweedy is still in the driver's seat on the band's recent albums, other voices are definitely making themselves heard.
The eclectic axeman, who joined Wilco seven years ago and was immediately praised for the new sounds he brought to the band, says that multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone is the member who's most come into his own on the critically acclaimed group's seventh studio album, The Whole Love.
"Pat has a lot of ideas generally, I mean, he's very vocal" says Cline. "There was certainly not a spoken alliance that emerged with Jeff and Pat on this record; I think it was an organic one. But the next thing I knew, Jeff was kind of sitting back and letting Pat try anything and everything."
Sansone's contributions were significant enough that he was given co-production credit, along with Tweedy and Tom Schick. It's the first time a band member other than Tweedy has been individually recognized as such on a Wilco album, although the band as a whole has gotten production credit on a number of past recordings.
Tweedy had always been Wilco's focal point, ever since he founded the group in 1994 after the split of Uncle Tupelo, the influential country-inflected rock band he co-fronted with Jay Farrar. And after a series of personnel changes prior to Cline's 2004 arrival, Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt were the sole original band members. Cline, Sansone, drummer Glenn Kotche and keyboardist Mike Jorgensen complete a lineup that's been in place since 2004.
"Everyone's personalities emerge strongly on this record," says Cline. "I don't think there is any lack of anyone shining on this record in some way — and not in the most obvious ways. I don't mean shine time like heroically, but musically. And I think that Jeff's lyrics on this record are some of his strongest ever."
Although described by the New York Times as "one of the best guitarists in any genre," Cline isn't one to go on about his own talents. But when it's time to talk up his bandmates, he rises to the occasion.
"Mike had some amazing textural, sonic keyboard things that he did on this record," says Cline. "He'd just get all these synths going and all these programs going, and it really was fun to hear him concoct these events. Some of the stuff ended up on the record, and some of it didn't. But some amazing stuff went on."
Cline says a collaborative atmosphere has been present for all three albums this lineup has recorded, going back to 2007's Sky Blue Sky, on which Tweedy involved his bandmates at an early stage in the writing process. With The Whole Love, many of his songs were already fully formed, says Cline, but a spirit of adventure still came into play in the studio.
"There was a lot of freedom and a lot of experimentation and a lot of ideas just put out there," he explains. "We were able to see what made the cut without getting too precious about it."
On "Black Moon" and "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)," Cline says Tweedy really liked the early versions. "We just kind of refined them a little bit, and Jeff re-sung them, and that's that." But the album's opening track, "Art of Almost," was reworked from a down-tempo tune into a poppy track that liberally mixes electronics with traditional instrumentation, then shifts into a sonically dense and fairly furious finish that spotlights Cline's creative guitar soloing.
"Sunloathe" is another song whose arrangement underwent considerable change. "It became a completely different thing and went through many different phases as far as how to approach each verse, what the drums were going to do," recalls Cline. "The start-and-stop drumming was a later idea. That was just a song that could have gone in so many different directions."
Packing a punch
The Whole Love is also one of Wilco's more eclectic efforts. For a time the band even considered doing two separate albums before paring it down to the current 12 songs.
Gentle, largely acoustic songs like "Black Moon" and the 12-minute "One Sunday Morning" are interspersed with the compact, catchy "I Might," "Dawned on Me" and "Standing O." There are also enticing hooks on tracks like "Born Alone" and the "Art of Almost," which are bolstered with extended instrumental segments.
Looking back, Cline is pleased with the final result. "This record has some pretty strong bold rock with big choruses," he says. "It's not super heavy, but I think it still packs a punch. I think that's what I like about the sort of pop-rock songs on this record is that, as poppy as they might be, they still have some crunch and a couple of good blows to the breadbasket."