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‘The Ashes of American Flags’- Revisiting Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Twenty Years Later

There is a certain tension surrounding Wilco’s prolific fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Due to being dropped by their record label after they deemed the album unlistenable, the band released the entire thing on their website to listen to for free in 2001, before its official widespread release on April 23 2002, twenty years ago today. 

The band recently announced a reissued selection of deluxe box-sets to celebrate the album’s twentieth anniversary, featuring recorded live performances and 82 unreleased tracks that are sure to hold some hidden gems amongst them. It also features new liner notes and photos depicting the tumultuous making of the album- an ordeal that reverberates through the record and each of its tracks. 

YHF is seemingly always talked about within this context of the album’s release. Not only facing issues from their management, there also existed ongoing tensions between band members at the time, leading to guitarist Jay Bennett being fired from the band prior to YHF’s release. Moreover, although its tracks were written before the attack, the album’s discussions on patriotism and specific imagery of ‘The Ashes of American Flags’ signify an ominous prophesying of the 9/11 attacks that took place just nine days before its initial online release. Further immortalised by the coincidental use of the Marina City towers on its cover, the album has been associated with the event ever since, making its impact on the cultural landscape even more significant. 

Picture credit: Wikipedia

However, as the album is often consumed by this inescapable context, we become distracted from appreciating its actual content. In its eleven tracks, lyricist and frontman Jeff Tweedy presents a despairing world of economic crises, heartbreak and deteriorating self-image, but most importantly, he urges us to find a glimmer of hope within it all. 

The sound of the album was to change the course of alternative music for years to come, as Wilco veered away from their former ‘alt-country’ style, pioneered in their first three projects and instead created a new sound altogether. Although undertones of country are heard in its guitar riffs, its driving piano and percussion arrangements echo prog-rock sensibilities, as well as a slight foray into psychedelia. Most importantly, the use of haphazard static noise and bizarre samples add texture to each track, as seen in the penultimate song ‘Poor Places’. Between Tweedy’s musings on alcoholism and exhaustion, the song eventually fades into repeating the titular phrase ‘Yankee, Hotel, Foxtrot’ – a sample from a series of audio recordings once used by governments to contact spies, but now offering no use in the modern world. Its sentiments therefore seem appropriate for an album that laments the despair of modern America, devoid of patriotism and hope- a feeling that Tweedy must now scramble to recover through his music.

It’s important to consider Tweedy as ‘the face’ of the band itself, as he is one of the last few living rockstars of our time that rejects this label entirely. Although he appears on the surface to feed into the unfortunate stereotypes of Rock-stardom, having been open about his experiences with alcoholism and addiction, he remains a rare honest voice within the industry, as interviews find him modest, bashful, and always striving to be better. A 2004 Spin interview detailed his struggles with chronic migraines and debilitating panic attacks that make normal domestic life for his family difficult – a struggle that evidently weighs heavily on his mind throughout YHF

It is unclear whether Tweedy writes about himself in the opening track ‘I am Trying to Break Your Heart’- a song in which its narrator drunkenly wanders around ‘the big city blinking’ as they regretfully recall the last decaying remnants of a failed relationship. Nevertheless, Tweedy clings on to this feeling of shame throughout the album, as demonstrated in the self-inserted narrative of ‘Kamera’ that describes a final cry for help after total immersion in a loss of self; ‘Phone my family/ Tell ’em I’m lost on the sidewalk/ And no, it’s not okay.’

The truest depiction of Tweedy however appears in Sam Jones’ documentary that chronicles the making of the album. ‘I am Trying To Break Your Heart; A film about Wilco’ is a hard watch- shot in grainy black and white, the film cuts between the band’s creative process and live performances, including excerpts of arguments and confessions from band members at the time. Amidst its dramatic exhibition of the band being dropped from their record company, and even covering Bennett leaving the band, Tweedy remains at the heart of the story. It captures a visual intimacy of his character that the album can only enhance- from the uncomfortable scenes of him being physically ill in the bathroom after an argument with Bennett to an interaction between him and his son as they sing together on a tour bus.  

In the film, Tweedy talks about the unique sonic choices on the album- a balance of simple arrangements with a classic rock twist. Such sentiments are evident in ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’- a song in which cracks of optimism shine through between its lyrics and has remained a staple at Wilco’s live shows. Furthermore, its words delve into the world of live music itself, detailing a youth spent watching heavy metal bands ‘playing kiss covers/ beautiful and stoned’, as Tweedy seeks to find joy in music once again. 

The fifth track ‘Jesus, Etc.’ finds its narrator searching for answers against bittersweet string arrangements. It is one of the tracks most associated with the presence of the 9/11 attacks with its lyrics describing; ‘Tall buildings shake/ Voices escape singing sad, sad songs’, enhanced by the string’s ominous tremolo in the verses. However, it remains one of the band’s most popular and beloved songs, offering something for its listener to cling to in times of crisis- both then and now. 

The album’s impact remains equally prevalent to this day, with the world continuously facing the deep political and social unrest that Tweedy depicts in his lyrics. His musings on self-reflection and isolation are more important than ever as we have all been forced to spend more time alone with ourselves in the past two years than many of us would’ve liked. Moreover, through the years Tweedy’s desperate dystopian presentation of the world continues to become a frightful reality.

As evidenced in ‘The Ashes of American Flags’, the image of modern America continues to crumble in Tweedy’s lyrics. It’s a sombre elegy to the fall of the American Dream in all its great promise- the verses populated by images of ‘hot and sorrowful’ ATM machines and ‘fallen leaves filling up shopping bags’. Its brass section enters in its final chorus- a sound once signifying great pride and honour, is painfully dissonant and sad. It echoes the feeling of drowned patriotism, as heard in the song’s final minutes, now ultimately lost and buried under all-consuming noise. 

However, upon a closer look, perhaps we are too quick to judge Tweedy’s nihilistic approach. Although the world may be falling apart around us, as most felt in the years that followed 2001, Tweedy indicates there is great comfort that can be found in turning to each other. More than anything else, ‘The Ashes of American Flags’ honours rebirth and recovery – the narrator ‘down on his hands and knees’ begging to ‘come back new’. Perhaps Tweedy’s final message, hidden behind the album’s shroud of despair and self-deprecation, can be found in its final words. On the last track ‘Reservations’, Tweedy leaves us with the words: ‘I’ve got reservations/ about so many things/ but not about you.’ In the album’s conclusion, Tweedy accepts that the one thing he can truly rely on as the world caves in around him is simply love. In embracing the age-old cliché, love conquers all of Tweedy’s faults and fears, offering the lasting sentiment that if he can be deserving of hope, so should we all. 

Written by Adele Fennessy

The 2022 re-issue of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will be available in September of this year. 

You can listen to the album here.

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