Featuring Kurt Vile, Low, Courtney Barnett, Sharon Van Etten, Ryley Walker and more, the Wilcovered tribute album was given away with Uncut in 2019 and has since had a second life with various vinyl pressings. It would be unfair to pick a favourite from it; and yet it seems clear which cover the band were most into. Not only did they choose Cate Le Bon’s take on A Ghost Is Born’s “Company In My Back” to open the compilation and trail the release online, but Jeff Tweedy had already asked the Welsh singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist to produce their next album.
The fruits of this collaboration are appearing now, four years later, after Covid and then 2022’s Cruel Country pushed it into the sidelines. Whereas Cruel Country made a virtue of its organic nature – Wilco’s first proper ‘country’ album, recorded live in a room – Cousin is the mangled art-rock record they’ve been talking up for a while. This is the return of the experimental, noisy, future-facing Wilco, last heard on 2015’s Star Wars.
Le Bon is the perfect producer to help them with this. Her own records have always sounded so unusual, so full of personality, and over the last decade that seemed to naturally lead to production work with H Hawkline, Tim Presley, Deerhunter, John Grant and now Devendra Banhart. The results haven’t necessarily been these artists’ most commercial or accessible records, but they’ve often been their most interesting, so it’s unsurprising that Wilco wanted to tap into a bit of that here.
If there’s any criticism to be levelled at Le Bon’s production work, it’s that her fingerprints are often audibly all over the albums she produces. However, that’s not the case here: Cousin is deliciously weird and intoxicatingly angular, but it still sounds like a Wilco album, not a Le Bon collaboration. There are crisp drums, bone-dry guitars and woozy synths – of course – but as always with Wilco the material is the thing. No matter how strange they get, these songs could all be played on acoustic guitar, and indeed Tweedy’s acoustic does feature prominently on a number of these tracks. “Pittsburgh”, for instance, is a finger-picked ballad, yet it opens with huge slabs of distorted synths and plummeting guitar. In one sense Wilco have never sounded like this; in another they always have.
“Ten Dead” is another classically Wilco song: a languid, Beatles-esque ballad that finds Tweedy waking up to terrible news: “Turn on the radio, this is what they said/No more, no more than ten dead”. As it reaches its middle section, the circular riffs turn eerier and drones mass as the narrator becomes increasingly disconnected amid the horror of the everyday. The following “When The Levee Is Fake” is similar, with its baroque guitar arpeggios, a little Smiths, a little Radiohead’s “Knives Out”. Tweedy is at his best here, even if the words are few: “Why worry about the rain and the wind/When I know it comes from within…” His delivery is vacant, distant, a perfect encapsulation of our modern malaise. “A Bowl And A Pudding” is another crystalline gem, vaguely reminiscent of Tweedy and Glenn Kotche’s work with Loose Fur. “Not saying anything”, he mutters as the music grows unsteady, “says a lot”.
Elsewhere, Le Bon’s influence is closer to the surface. “Sunlight Ends” is based around ragged drum machine and an echoed tangle of notes, their origin hard to identify. The title track, too, is stiff, jerky new wave of the kind that Le Bon mastered so well on 2016’s Crab Day; lyrically it’s dark, almost cut up, with mentions of “walking round an empty grave” and the dead awaking “in waves”.
As the album nears it end it returns to melody and – almost – positivity. “Soldier Child” is a kind of power-pop song, two lilting chords see-sawing back and forth until it reaches a classic chorus, with the narrator returning home after a period away: “I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to be this tired…” Despite its easy charm, it always shies away from the obvious or the cheesy, just as Wilco do on Cousin’s closing track, “Meant To Be”, a galloping new wave track, its strummed acoustic and tight beat reminiscent of XTC, The Cure or Echo & The Bunnymen. As with the rest of Cousin, though, weirdness scratches at the edges, here in the form of discordant touches and feedbacked drones.
The real highlight, however, is the opener. Almost six minutes long, “Infinite Surprise” is one of the bravest and most infectious songs Wilco have created. It cuts straight in with a clipped beat and guitar abstractions, then builds masterfully as instruments join, fall away and return changed. At its heart it’s an accessible, deeply melodic folk song about the sad mysteries of life and death (“It’s good to be alive/It’s good to know we die”), but it’s dressed in wondrous experimental finery. It ends untethered, exploding into crackles and rattles, an avant-garde fanfare for its makers: (still) the greatest American rock group of the last 30 years.