Ever since this album came out in 2001, talk around these 'ere intertubes has had it that the disc is one of those near-perfect albums that work seamlessly as a whole, and are entirely irreducible, in the sense that one cannot lop off any given track without the experience suffering.
Which is obviously nonsense, because the first track isn't very good at all. "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" is an overlong chore, a formless mess through which Jeff Tweedy attempts some kind of free-association ramble that proves even more surely than Roddy Woomble's work that Michael Stipe's approach to songwriting isn't nearly so easy at it looks (which is probably why Stipe himself stopped being really able to do it by Reveal at the latest).
That's the bad news. The good news is that "... Break Your Heart" stands out so badly entirely because the rest of this album is so wonderful; a gentle, sorrowful swirl that fades and swells. "War and War" would be the most glorious slice of understated indie pop I've heard all year except "Kamera" is on here as well. "Radio Cure" a crumbling request for assistance from another that threatens to blow away into dust even as you're listening, even if the central line - "Distance has no way of making love understandable" - has it entirely backwards: distance is the only means by which we find the space to hold our love to the light and figure out what it contains. And if Belle and Sebastian aren't anymore going to write the kind of stunning hushed ballads that were once their stock and trade, "Jesus, Etc" demonstrates they weren't uniquely gifted in that regard.
In short, there's a four-song cycle on the first half of the disc that's utterly impeccable. It's also just a warm-up for the album's spine-chilling centre-point, "Ashes Of American Flags", a song so baffling in it's perfection that it seems a disservice to even attempt to describe it with anything more than a wide-eyed expression of wonder.
With it's exceptional payload delivered, the album seems content to put its feet up and just enjoy itself. All of the remaining four tracks before the final song seem possessed of a sense of optimism harder to find on the disc's earlier songs. I'd be tempted to suggest they aren't quite as interesting as a result, but then I'm a miserable bastard, and that's not Wilco's fault. In any case, "not quite as interesting" is still light-years away from anything approaching "bad", and frankly I'd imagine plenty of people would be keen for a breather after all that maudlin wallowing; "Pot Kettle Black" being a particularly enjoyable tonic in that regard.
Indeed, the only points where the album so much as slightly stumble are the tracks written by Tweedy alone. "...Break Your Heart" I've already panned, but "Heavy Metal Drummer" feels pretty throwaway, and album closer "Reservations" ends up somewhat testing the patience. Based on this set, it's a real shame Tweedy concluded his co-writer Jay Bennett was surplus to requirements, because the evidence seems clear here that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot could never have been what it was through the effort of one man alone.
Eight and a half tentacles.