In early 2001, Chicago-based rock band Wilco finished recording their fourth studio album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. After being dropped from their record label, the band eventually decided to stream the album on their website, on 18 September. Eerily enough, it was originally intended to be released exactly a week before.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would have been emerged into a world of chaos and unbearable grief. Millions mourned their losses while simultaneously trying to come to terms with the reality of an unprecedented and unexpected loss of life. as well as the shattering of their sense of safety in America. Listening to the album now, it is inexplicable how many of the songs on the album accurately capture these reactions.
The record’s opener, ‘I am trying to break your heart’ is a subdued piano-led track for the most part, but it gets increasingly off-putting as it progresses. At a melodic level, a sense of disorder arises throughout the song, specifically through the odd embellishments that clash with the mostly placid instrumentals such as the scraping of piano strings, that ultimately leads to an anarchic ending. The unruly atmosphere of this nearly musically incoherent section is overwhelming, much like the globally-felt confusion that grew out of the 9/11 attacks.
There are a number of these chaotic passages throughout the album. ‘Poor places’ builds into a particularly noisy ending, as waves of feedback and radio-like static overpower the serene instrumentation. During the track’s final 90 seconds, a muffled female voice is heard repeating the album’s title.
The words ‘Yankee’, ‘Hotel’ and ‘Foxtrot’ are all part of the NATO phonetic alphabet, which is used for numerous contexts involving radio communication – one of which, and aptly in this case, being in-flight. Even with that haunting connection disregarded, so many disturbing themes are captured in this finale – impending destruction, the decay of a sense of self, feelings of uselessness – all of which are characteristic not just the few years that followed the 9/11 attacks, but of the world as we now know it. The nihilistic outlook of it all is perhaps depicted even more precisely through the bleak and fatidic lyric: “it makes no difference to me / how they cried all over overseas.”
Lyrically, there are several other prophetic moments throughout the album. ‘Jesus, etc’ contains front man Jeff Tweedy’s eeriest prophecy on the album: “Tall buildings shake / Voices escape, singing sad sad songs”. When I first heard this album in 2017, this line didn’t seem like it could be referring to anything other than the 9/11 attacks. In the context it was released in, it’s a tragic reminder of the thousands of lives lost that day, and plays into the singer’s assertion that in these unpredictable times, “our love is all we have.”
‘Ashes of American Flags’ is one of the album’s most musically melancholic songs, and the lyrics contain some of its most blatant foreshadowing.“I wonder why we listen to poets when nobody gives a fuck” Tweedy sings, commenting on the futility of the artist’s abstract attempts to rationalise the world around them when rationality has vanished from the world. Though one of the closing lines, “I would like to salute / The ashes of American flags”, was probably intended to be read as praise of flag burnings as forms of concrete expression, its meaning would have vastly shifted upon release.
Elsewhere on the album are smaller yet just as sure instances of prescience. The title of ‘War on War’, which is repeated throughout the song, in a post 9/11 world can be tied to the justifications for the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003. ‘Pot kettle black’ calls out the double standard that belies ones critiques of other people. This draws parallels to the hypocrisy of post-9/11 patriotism and ‘togetherness’, given the racism directed towards Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Arab and South-Asians by the American government ever since the attacks.
Some say a lot of these connections are a stretch, but, Tweedy himself noted the “eerie echoes of 9/11” he heard on the album. Each component of the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had their own meaning well before the post-9/11 world came to be. But the unintentional predictions scattered throughout the album cannot be ignored. Sentiments of loss and confusion that make up so much of the album also define much of the attitudes and emotions that ceded the attacks and that shaped society as we know it today.