Perfect Records: Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Everyone has an album that has stayed with them for years, even decades, a constant musical companion that grows with you as your life and perspective changes. With that in mind, Deadshirt presents Perfect Records, an ongoing series of personal essays about the albums that stuck with us and how they’ve shaped our lives.

Can you picture this for me? Teenaged Christina, swimming in a too-big canvas jacket, wearing beat-as-shit Chucks, uncomfortable around her friends, her classmates, and, most especially, herself. That was the me I was when I discovered Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I owe this discovery to my brother, Jonathan, but also to the mix CDs he so lovingly arranged, as that was where I was first exposed to “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” The wild dissonance and feedback as “I Am Trying…” fades out was the first thing to grab my attention, as it sounded nothing like any music I’d previously been exposed to. Meanwhile the manic, tumbling energy of “I’m the Man Who Loves You” mixed with the pleading contradictions of its lyrics kept hold of me long after the song had stopped playing. When I got my first car Jonathan gifted me a burned copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and from that moment on it was a constant in my life, even as everything else changed around it.

I like to think that I’m the only person to find and fall in love with a record in high school that stayed with me for years, but I know that’s not true. So many of us find an album that speaks to us when we’re teenagers, when we feel helpless and frustrated, when we’re just on the cusp of becoming ourselves, an album that we can’t help but return to over and over, discovering meaning in it each time we do.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is that album for me.

“Jesus, etc.” blasted from my car speakers as I raced my way out of the student lot at my high school, beating the rest of my classmates and avoiding the inevitable jam of cars at the lot’s choking exit. How can I describe that feeling? It was freedom, I think. “Heavy Metal Drummer” accompanied myself and my car full of friends on the only day I ever skipped school: my senior year, a warm-but-windy June day, a drive through the impossibly green Connecticut country, an afternoon spent reclining on a granite boulder overlooking the ocean.

Frontman Jeff Tweedy croons these lyrics like he’s discovered a truth that’s terrible, but a truth that he needs to tell you, all the same. This music let me shove aside the grayness that, thanks to years of untreated depression, bled into every facet of my being. “What was I thinking when I said it didn’t hurt?” Holy shit, you guys. That line from “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” was me in high school, pure and simple. After I graduated, my depression and my anxiety only got worse, until even I could recognize that I needed a change. So I left. I moved to Boston, where Jonathan was living, thinking if he could pull off change, then so could I. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot moved with me, this time loaded into my iPod.

I spent a year in Massachusetts, living in a tiny loft apartment that was always too hot, commuting to UMass Boston, and working at the library there. The change of location did me no good. I was as uncomfortable with myself as I had been in high school, but this time with the added stress of rent and utility payments. I went to class part time and worked long hours. The campus was a small one, cramping together buildings that were connected at the second floors by enclosed walkways. We were next to the ocean, and the way the buildings were clustered together in two rows made the campus a wind tunnel in the winter. Often, fog would roll in off the harbor and cover everything.

On late nights after shifts at the library, I’d walk along the maze of empty corridors, using the tunnels to cut across the silent quad, listening to music and staring out at the hidden campus. In the fog, the night seemed alien. It would glow, backlit as it was from the streetlights below. Looking out at this strange landscape, I would imagine myself elsewhere and question where my decisions were leading me. “I need a camera to my eye/To my eye reminding/Which lies have I been hiding/Which echoes belong.” “Kamera” seemed to understand exactly how I was feeling. At the end of that summer, I left Boston and settled into middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania, to finally complete my undergraduate degree. It was there I finally began treatment for my depression.

But I still continued to listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It was playing the January day I totaled my first car, on my drive back to school after winter break when I hit a patch of ice and lost control. It was a quiet totaling, with my car gently but firmly sliding across the road and into the side of the mountain I’d been navigating my way down. My wrecked Toyota Corolla is where that first copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stayed, trapped forever in the CD player and doomed to a compactor in a junkyard on the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Luckily, I still had my iPod copy. I listened to “Radio Cure” on repeat only a few months later, after my first serious relationship ended. “Oh, distance has no way of making love understandable.”

I own Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on vinyl now, the only vinyl record I own and the third incarnation of the album I’ve had in my possession. There are other Wilco albums I love (Summerteeth being a special favorite, closely followed by the folks-y Being There), but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was my first. The perfection I see in it is deeply personal. Not only have the songs on this album woven themselves through my life, but I can recognize the quality of the album beyond my own experiences. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a major success for the band, both commercially and critically, selling over 500,000 copies in the US [1] and even landing #3 on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Albums of the 2000s list [2]. Before it, Wilco was a band on the edge of collapsing, almost dissolving even during the act of creating this album, which is chronicled in the excellent documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.

Even without seeing this documentary, though, you can hear the experimentation, the struggle, and the ways in which musical boundaries were being pushed just by listening to the album in its entirety. There’s the dissonance in the first track (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”), as I’ve mentioned before, but the weird and ethereal sounds continue through the album, creating a cohesion that maybe a less talented or less desperate band would have failed at producing. Even “Heavy Metal Drummer,” which to me has always stuck out as a bit more pop-y than the other songs, has the same thematic undertones to it–a desire to return to a past that’s familiar, but also a recognition that the past is gone for a reason, even if those reasons are unhappy ones.

All of the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot have cycled in as my favorites at one point or another. Right now it’s “Reservations.” A short, quiet love song, “Reservations” makes me ache just thinking about it. The dissonance at the end of this last track of the album, fading out with competing piano chords and notes that sound as though they’ve been dropped into a well, echoes back to the dissonance in “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the dissonance that opened the album. It creates these two beautiful bookends out of something that otherwise feels ugly at first blush.

As with every other song, there is a particular line in “Reservations” that perfectly encapsulates who I am in this moment as a soon-to-be graduate standing on the edge of something brand new, and very scary: “I’ve got reservations/About so many things/But not about you.”

Post By Christina Harrington (23 Posts)

Deadshirt Assistant Editor. Writer. MFA. Find her fiction in Crack the Spine and Eunoia Review.

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One thought on “Perfect Records: Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

  1. Love your writing, as always so thoughtful. Love this site. And for me it was Fleetwood Mac, Rumours. I know, showing my age.

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