Photo by Jonathan Zurick

A criticism that has dogged Wilco is that new albums don’t change, that the Wilco of 10 years ago has not progressed at all. Related to that is the concern that all Wilco songs are essentially the same. Yet the show last night at Central Park negated the first critique and rebuffed the second.
On the one hand, Wilco has carved out a strong aesthetic, marked by singer-songwriter structures, country-rock styles and occasional bursts of ambient chaos. Frontman Jeff Tweedy, bashful and boisterous in equal measures, captured the crowd by playing an even helping of old hits with cuts from Wilco’s newest album, The Whole Love. The lack of a marked difference in quality between the hits and the new songs was startling; judging by the set it didn’t seem like there has been any decline in quality in Wilco songs since Summerteeth (there has, but only slightly). So while it’s true that Wilco is not necessarily changing styles at this point, it’s also true that Tweedy remains a stellar songwriter and can explore his unique aesthetic for a long, long time.
Yet on the other hand, the “Wilco aesthetic” is misleading. Thursday’s set showed a notable versatility in both Wilco’s songwriting and musicianship. Virtuoso lead guitarist Nels Cline blazed through extended solos, most notably in “Ashes Of American Flags,” in which he nearly reinvented the blues solo, and in “Shot In The Arm,” in which it was clear that someone had been listening to Steely Dan lately. Tweedy’s songs do not all sound alike—some are soft ballads that build to a careful sigh, while others, like 2009’s “Bull Black Nova,” are oppressive paranoia-scapes that eke out misery to a pleasant crowd. Wilco’s aesthetic is variable and versatile, so it makes no sense to call Wilco’s music stagnant, even as it hasn’t changed much in 15 years.
The set at Central Park proved one more thing: Live, Wilco sacrifices volume for clarity—all of Tweedy’s pained, heartbroken lyrics were immediately distinguishable, even as concertgoers could hold conversations above them.