Cruel Country is an album title that cuts two ways, the “country” referring either to a nation or a musical genre. The duality is deliberate, as Wilco are grappling not only with America’s tumultuous present but also the band’s fraught legacy with country music. Jeff Tweedy cut his teeth as part of Uncle Tupelo, the pioneering alt-country group that sowed the seeds for the Americana movement early in the 1990s. When he formed Wilco in the wake of Uncle Tupelo’s dissolution, Tweedy bristled when his new band was pigeonholed as “country-rock,” a designation that suited their 1995 debut A.M. Beginning with its sprawling successor Being There, he methodically pushed Wilco into uncharted territory, transforming their image from Americana troubadours into a restless, adventurous rock band.
Wilco’s thirst for experimentation was bound to lead them back to their beginning, which is precisely what happens with Cruel Country. In a letter accompanying the album’s release, Tweedy writes, “In the past, it was always valuable and liberating for us to steer clear of the ‘country’ moniker. It helped us grow and keep our minds open to inspiration from near and far.” But when Wilco reconvened after a pandemic-inspired hiatus, the sextet decided to shelve a collection of art-pop songs they started prior to the onset of COVID-19, and they were drawn instead to simple, direct material that sounded “country” in a way the group hadn’t since their formation.
Tweedy started writing some of the Cruel Country tunes during the sessions for Love Is the King, a 2020 solo album cut during the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where that record had the trademarks of being created in isolation—Tweedy largely worked alone, assisted by his drummer son Spencer and producer Tom Schick—Cruel Country is clearly and proudly the work of a band. All six members of Wilco recorded live in the studio for the first time in over a decade, letting their instruments bleed into each other as the rhythms breathe and sway. The song isn’t necessarily placed at the forefront so much as the group’s collective chemistry: After their prolonged absence, they sound happy, even relieved, to be creating a joyful noise once again.
As buoyant as the interaction fueling the music may be, Cruel Country isn’t a particularly raucous album. The tempos rarely break a sweat, the volume is restrained, and the spirit is hushed. The quiet nature is born of a shared space where every member of Wilco feels at ease. Cruel Country is a communal album, but it’s a small community: a group figuring out a path of deliverance from a bleak time. Tweedy spends a good portion of the album ruminating about a world gone wrong. He admits that, despite the stupidity and cruelty, he loves his country “like a little boy,” pondering the notion that “reality ruins everything,” while realizing that “I’ve been through hell on my way to hell,” a sentiment that conveys how he relies on his gut with his social commentary.