October 27, 2020

Music Monday: Lent with Wilco


I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

From “London” by William Blake

• • •

Wilco-Yankee-Hotel-Foxt-325360Music Monday: Lent with Wilco

For the past two years I have chosen a soundtrack for Lent, an album of music from the popular culture of my lifetime in which I find lessons for the Lenten journey. Last year it was Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, and in 2013 it was the music of Townes Van Zandt. I’m continuing the tradition this year. For 2015’s soundtrack I have chosen an iconic recording of the new millennium, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, released in April 2002 after a difficult and contentious year for the band.

Electronic feedback and static is the primary sonic texture that runs through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from beginning to end. This is a perfect metaphor for the loneliness and alienation so many people feel in this modern/post-modern world. We are filled with information yet starved for intimacy and heartfelt communication.

A fascinating article by Jaymie Baxley at American Songwriter gives the background for the term, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” and how Jeff Tweedy of Wilco came to use it as the title for this record.

Shortly after World War I, mysterious shortwave radio stations began cropping up on long-dormant frequency bands across the globe. These stations, dubbed “Numbers Stations,” are thought to have been created for espionage purposes. Allegedly, government agencies would broadcast encrypted messages to undercover spies, who would then decode the messages using a one-time pad, or cipher key.

At any given time, a radio listener could dial into one of these stations and hear an artificially processed voice reciting strings of phonetic alphabet and numeric code; transmissions intended to be heard exclusively by just one person.

In 1998, Akin Fernandez, owner of London-based imprint Irdial Records, compiled more than 100 unearthed recordings of Numbers Stations into a 4-disc box set entitled The Conet Project.

In the years leading up to the recording of Wilco’s fourth studio album, the Irdial set was a staple in frontman Jeff Tweedy’s car stereo. The singer was especially intrigued by the compilation’s fourth track, “Phonetic Alphabet – Nato,” in which an alleged Mossad agent repeatedly speaks out the abbreviation “YHF.”

The agent’s accent is tough to assign, though she delivers each word in a cold, comprehensible monotone: “Yankee…hotel…foxtrot…”

Tweedy would later explain his fascination with The Conet Project to Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot: “There is nothing more abstract to me than the idea of a country. These solitudes exist so apart from one another in this sea of white noise and information. And the beautiful thing is they keep transmitting to each other in the hope that somebody is going to find them,” he said.“And the beauty is that people still do, still find some meaning in another person, in a relationship, find some way to communicate, even though more often than not it’s in a way that’s not what they intended. Because some communication is better than giving up or not communicating at all.”

YHF’s actual release came after an excruciating birthing experience. Two members left the band at this time and Wilco’s label, Reprise, dropped them after receiving the completed product. It became clear that YHF wasn’t immediately accessible in their eyes and therefore not marketable enough for them to risk further investment.

The documentary, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart [trailer below] chronicles the season in which Tweedy and company made YHF and then tried to find a way to get it released. One person who speaks about these matters in the film is David Fricke, Senior Editor of Rolling Stone, and he explains why Reprise balked:

“It doesn’t tell me exactly who it’s for, it doesn’t tell me exactly what it’s about, and it doesn’t tell me exactly how much it will sell. There’s pretty stuff in there, there’s hard stuff in there, there’s mystery in there, there’s really sweet tunes, and there’s an abrasion in there as well. But it’s all there, and you really have to kind of sit with it, you have to allow yourself the time to get something out of it.”

Interesting, isn’t it, that a record highlighting themes of contemporary alienation and the challenges of interpersonal communication should lead to a season in which the band faced those very challenges? I have to agree with Fricke — YHF is a dense and evocative masterpiece that offers new insights and rewards with each repeated hearing.

Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic wrote a fine retrospective, “What Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Said,” for the 10th anniversary of the album’s release. Kornhaber notes how individual songs on the album effectively make these themes come alive. He says, “Again and again, Tweedy returns to the disconnect between what’s on his mind and what’s on his tongue.” He observes how “[e]ven the seemingly straightforward tracks confront the challenge of being straightforward.” The one song on the album that is actually unambiguous and free-spirited is “Heavy Metal Drummer,” with its libertine equivalent of childlike joy: “I miss the innocence I’ve known/playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned.” Interestingly, it’s a nostalgia piece, looking to a less complicated past, “sincerely missing” the simplicity of those days. The rest of the record is built on a sort of sonic “weirdness,”which incarnates “the fuzziness of how people relate to one another.” I think Spencer Kornhaber sums up YHF well:

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s triumph was in how it captured a facet of human nature: the way we all send signals, hoping that someone will understand them but also anxious about what happens when someone does. You’ll sometimes hear the album get called cryptic, or self-conscious, or difficult. And that’s fine. It’s really a soundtrack for the ways in which people ask to be misunderstood.

. . . Tweedy’s really singing about a universal, timeless crisis of communication.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot thus qualifies as an appropriate companion for the Lenten journey, a good prompt for contemplating the “mind forg’d manacles” we all have to deal with in a fallen world, and especially in our own age, when white noise, feedback, and static have increased to levels never before known among humans.

We cry out to heaven and earth, hoping someone will hear, understand, and answer.


  1. LOVE the band and the album. Favorite song from that album is War on War.


  2. Who are you, and what have you done with Chaplain Mike?

    Someone from Rolling Stone or Mother Jones seems to have hijacked this blog today.

    I’m sorry, but this post does not speak to my apparently feeble, nearly 74-year-old mind, heart, soul, or experience.

    I realize that we old people are an ever-smaller portion of your readership by virtue of our mortality, if nothing else, but this post is obviously meant for the Boomer Generation.

    I have become irrelevant, at least in the minds of you younger folk.

    Blake had a point.

    • btdt(frwp), I’m not a fan of Wilco either but apparently the difference between me and you is I’ve learned that I don’t have to always be the center of attention. And I’ve also figured out that my own personal tastes are not the laws of the universe. Blake did have a point.

      Let’s you and I step away and let the folks to whom this music is very meaningful have their conversation to which we obviously have nothing to contribute.

    • I think Wilco might be a post-boomer band. I don’t know. I think of them as proto-hipster. Obsessive fans my age (35) is where I learned about them.

    • Bob, I’ve come to see Lent as a time to observe how death is not only at work in me through sin, corruption, and weakness, but also how it is portrayed through thoughtful representatives of the popular culture. You may not like, understand or even know of Wilco and their music. I don’t expect that everyone will. But I hope you will take the bigger point of the post and consider it.

  3. Love this, Chaplain Mike. YFH is a wonderful album, but my favorite song of theirs is from A Ghost is Born—Theologians.

    Now I need to go back and listen to YFH with this post in mind.

    • If I ever do a podcast, Theologians will be the theme song.

    • Love that song. Lyrics:

      They don’t know nothing
      About my soul
      About my soul
      I’m an ocean
      An abyss in motion
      Slow motion
      Slow motion
      Inlitterati lumen fidei
      God is with us everyday
      That illiterate light
      Is with us every night
      They don’t know nothing
      About my soul
      Oh they don’t know
      They kill my heart with little things
      And my life with change
      Oh in so many ways
      I find more missing every day
      I’m going away
      Where you will look for me
      Where I’m going you cannot come
      No one’s ever gonna take my life from me
      I lay it down, a ghost is born
      A ghost is born, a ghost is born
      I’m an ocean all emotion
      I’m a cherry ghost, cherry ghost
      Hey I’m a cherry ghost
      A cherry ghost

    • Yes.

  4. I love this album but I’ve never known why. Those are some really helpful insights about it.

    The story about the short-wave radio frequencies makes it that much more creepy.

  5. every generation has its ‘music’ . . . our fallen condition is often its focus

    something from my own time:

  6. An album with a more traditional approach to lent is the subtly named “Lent” album by The Brilliance.

    Dust We Are and Shall Return:

  7. In recent years, Jeff Tweedy has done some wonderful work with gospel/soul/R&B legend Mavis Staples. I reccommend their album “You Are Not Alone”.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNybNtRmyYQ (a great cover of my favorite CCR song)

  8. I’ve never been a big Wilco fan, but they wrote the song “Theologians”, which was a college staple. Props to them.

  9. I really like the music Mondays feature. Count me as one for whom music speaks to their innermost soul, with words and pictures following very closely behind.

    Years ago, a big part of my coming to faith was the integration (in a positive way) of music into my life. In a large part, it sustains me today.

    BTW, something about the honesty of Jeff Tweedy which really speaks to me as well!

    • I agree. While my initial reaction was, “What does Music Mondays have to do with Jesus-shaped spirituality,” I’m a person whose faith continues to be shaped by the truth of the human condition found in music.

  10. Although the technology has changed, here’s a song (post-punk style) about how technology itself can be one of the “mind forg’d manacles,” simultaneously mediating and obstructing the messages we send:


  11. I remember reading about YHF when it came out. Never bought it. Sounds like something I should pick up. Thanks for the article, CM.

  12. One of my favorite “broken condition” groups is The Drive-By Truckers. One of my favorites of theirs is “The Righteous Path.”

    Opens with this:
    “I got a brand new car that drinks a bunch of gas
    I got a house in a neighborhood that’s fading fast
    I got a dog and a cat that don’t fight too much
    I got a few hundred channels to keep me in touch
    I got a beautiful wife and three tow-headed kids
    I got a couple of big secrets I’d kill to keep hid
    I don’t know God but I fear his wrath
    I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path”

    • Love them. I recently got ahold of Jason Isbell’s latest solo release, Southeastern. It floored me with it’s honesty and openness about failure. Guess it has something to do with that whole going through radical addiction and coming out the other side thing…

  13. And David Bowie’s TVC15, at the interface of technology and communication:


  14. Bob Dylan, singing about the multiplicity of “mind forg’e manacles.”


    Yes, I received your letter yesterday,
    about the time the doorknob broke.
    When you asked me how I was doing,
    was that some kind of a joke?

    All these people that you mention,
    yes, I know them, they’re quite lame.
    I had to rearrange their faces,
    and give them all another name.

    Right now, I don’t feel too good,
    don’t send me no more letters, no.
    Not unless you mail them from
    Desolation Row.

  15. The stunningly beautiful setting by Van Morrison for the poetry of William Blake:


    • Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field
      Let him look up into the heavens and laugh in the bnght air
      Let the inchained soul, shut up in darkness and in sighing
      Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary Years
      Rose and look out; his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open;
      And let his wife and children return from the oppressor’s scourge
      They look behind at every step and believe it is a dream
      Singing: The sun has left his blackness and has found a fresher morning
      And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear and cloudless night
      For empire is no more and now the Lion and Wolf shall cease