One consistent truth about Wilco is that they’re never ready to settle. Thirteen albums and a few lineup changes later, Jeff Tweedy tips his Stetson hat toward a more layered and eclectic sound on Cousin. Maybe it’s a push-back against the “dad-rock” label they’ve seemingly been trying to shake since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. Either way, Cousin carries just about the same level of uniqueness as any other Wilco release. Icy and poised, with support from Cate Le Bon on production, it’s their most emotional yet composed record in some time.
The album exudes discord and harmony, both spacious and saturated, texturizing the otherwise ambient sound. In opener “Infinite Surprise” sonic texture and distortions roll in and out like thunder, unsettlingly fractured throughout the entire track. It’s during the moments that Tweedy sings where the music is most calm, a stark difference from the feedback and distorted strings of the turbulent musical interludes. Throughout this chaos, the sole constant is the rhythmic ticking of a clock, seemingly echoing the unpredictable and turbulent passage of time.
“Pittsburg” similarly contains a lengthy, dramatic intro, though it’s the interlude that stands out. The background ambience in this section takes on a darker, eerier quality as it slowly swallows the comparatively brighter melody, leaving behind a controlled chaos of sharp piano and synth. The track eventually returns to simplicity, though its subdued ambience contrasts a heavy, chugging beat, lending an enigmatic, slow-burning allure to the music. “I’ve always been afraid to sing,” Tweedy contends before this interlude, hinting at a recurring concept within the album: stumbling over words, hesitancy. Or, like “A Bowl and A Pudding” so candidly indicates, letting the music speak – after its minute-and-a-half intro, Tweedy ironically hums the words, “Not saying anything / Says a lot.”
The album’s title track best illustrates this. “What I meant to say… / I… / I’m nothing / My cousin / I’m you.” Within this tangled and incoherent jumble of words, Tweedy expresses his sense of isolation from the world. He’s a cousin – not exactly a true outsider, but detached, nonetheless.
Whether its feeling numb to loss (“Ten Dead”), choosing between stability and stagnation (“Levee”), or taking responsibility for a breakup (“Evicted”), at its core, Cousin addresses these fundamental aspects of the human experience, however grim they may feel, as an outsider looking in. As a cousin. And yet, amidst this bleakness, he’s able to find a sense of hope: the tender final words of closer “Meant to Be” beg “And I still believe you’re the only one / Our love is meant to be / It is to me.”
Cousin is dense with insecurity, sharp riffs, and profound reflections on one’s relationship with both the self and the world. “My cousin / I’m you” resonates with the experience of an outsider looking in. It’s a feeling marked by a sense of detachment, moments of introspection, the occasional glimpse of hope, but always by a deep yearning to belong. Viewing the world from this perspective could make you more insightful. It could give you hope. Or it could just make you lonely. Cousin demonstrates both.