Here’s a question for you: If a band releases an album that’s not its best work, but is still better than most music produced by most other bands, would you praise it? Or would you find yourself longing for the imaginary album of musical genius that you believe it could have released instead? I ask myself this very question every time a new Wilco album comes out.
In 2002, Wilco was a reasonably successful and well-known alt-country band—formed by frontman Jeff Tweedy after the dissolution of his previous group, Uncle Tupelo—that had put out three solid albums. But then it released Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a genre-hopping gem of musical perfection that is inarguably one of the best albums of the past decade. After one listen of “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” people who didn’t normally like alt-country found themselves wondering if maybe they liked alt-country. College kids liked it. People in their 30s and 40s—people with kids, people who’d stopped caring about new music and who found most concerts too loud—liked it. My then 50-year-old mother borrowed my CD and refused to give it back, forcing me to buy another one. Wilco was big.
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But the band’s subsequent albums have all come up short. Oh, they’re pretty good; they always have two or three tunes that display Tweedy’s immense songwriting talent— “Hate it Here” off 2007’s Sky Blue Sky and the experimental “Bull Black Nova” from 2009’s Wilco (The Album) come to mind—and one of them earned the band a Grammy (that would be 2004’s A Ghost Is Born) but as a whole, their music has been a little flat. Wilco is like an athlete who wowed everyone with one incredible season but just can’t seem to make the magic happen again.
So where does that leave their latest effort, The Whole Love (out Sept. 27)? It’s a courageous endeavor full of sonic textures, poly-rhythmic songs and one sprawling track that lasts over 12 minutes. If you want a pop song, “Born Alone” is there for you. Ambient electronica with one massive guitar jam at the end? “Art of Almost” will do just fine. “I Might” offers up 1960s organ sounds while “Open Mind” is an acoustic love song. Tweedy certainly can’t be accused of sticking to a formula on this album. And under any other circumstances, I’d be praising it unequivocally. But I can’t help but wonder, is this the best Wilco can do?
So I’ll ask the question again. Do you hold a band up to its highest achievement? Or do you assess an album on its own merit, apart from whatever piece of artistic beauty came before it? Personally, I agree with the latter although I sometimes can’t help but do the former. The Whole Love might not be the album Wilco fans expected—but then again, with musical styles as wide-reaching as Wilco’s, who even knows what to expect?
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Claire Suddath is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @clairesuddath. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.