An Album That Changed My Life: Sky Blue Sky by Wilco
Growing up, I felt acutely self-conscious about my taste in music. I rarely knew bands others brought up in conversation and was too embarrassed to ask about them. I never offered up my own bands. I had a tendency towards pop that no-one else seemed to share except for ‘true fans’ and I didn’t have the trivia knowledge to hang with them. For years, my collection was largely populated by musical soundtracks from my mother. (At the time, I was still harbouring secret, and delusional, desires to be on Broadway.)
Over time, this self-consciousness simply became part of who I was. Friends would joke about banning me from the sound stations at parties. If anyone asked me what I was into, I’d just laugh and say, well I have pretty bad taste. Even though I liked a lot of different music, I was never loud or proud about it. I went to see bands play and I was moved by their performances, but hearing other people’s stories intimidated me; my own experiences felt fraudulent in comparison to those who’d ‘liked them before they’d become famous’.
And then I was introduced to Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky.
My housemate Maggie, a big Wilco fan, had begun playing the album some time after I moved in with her. She might put it on when we were cooking dinner one night, and then I’d hear it again on a Sunday afternoon when she was reading on our back deck. I remember one of my other housemates putting his head in his hands and moaning, not this again. And perhaps it was due to the enforced repeated playtime that I developed a relationship with the CD.
I found something addictive in music that was so unapologetically sincere, and direct. For me, it was the first album that I saw as complete. I had my favourite tracks but I didn’t want to skip ahead to hear them; it would have been like reading a middle chapter of a book. I loved the build-up in ‘Impossible Germany’ and would air-guitar to ‘Hate It Here’ in the kitchen but I needed the context of the album as a whole to enjoy them properly. In contrast to my previous experiences with albums Sky Blue Sky was a story in itself and I wanted the full experience. This was music that rewarded repeat listens.
A friend told me she’d found Sky Blue Sky boring, passive. I told her that I felt the underlying emotional impact made up for the simplicity. We both agreed that ‘Radio Cure’ (from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) had a terrific arc, both depressing and joyful. For the first time, I felt a sense of ownership over my opinion. I began to listen differently. The next album I came across was Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Howl, a gospel-rock-streaked foray into America. I sat down to the whole thing straight through, and then a second time. And again. I realised that I was crushing on gospel and began to hunt down more of it.
Today, I still struggle when people ask me what music I’m into. I still have a love of pop that many find appalling. I’ll feel a twinge of shame when telling people that I like to write while listening to Lady Gaga. But underneath this vague angst, I feel something more solid: the ability to own my tastes. It’s been a long time since I listened to Sky Blue Sky but I popped it on while writing this piece and it’s still as familiar to me as any of my favourite childhood books. The album doesn’t hit me with the same impact it once did - but there’s something about this realisation that I’m changing musically, that is just as thrilling as my first encounter.
So, what am I into today? Well…