Take the Guitar Player for a Ride: Wilco's Nels Cline
By Kelly Dearmore
Since 2004, dynamic guitar wiz Nels Cline has been Wilco’s not-so-secret weapon. Now that the jazz-rooted player has been with the band for the majority of its existence, it’s not unreasonable to view Wilco’s history in terms of B.C. and A.C. - Before Cline and After Cline. It’s difficult to remember what such particularly shredding B.C. songs like “Via Chicago” and “I’m the Man That Loves You” sounded like in concert during George W. Bush’s first term without Cline’s theatrical jamming…
Impossible Germany (2007)
Sky Blue Sky is the first recorded showcase of Cline’s contributions to the group, and “Impossible Germant” is amonth the most beloved of Cline’s otherworldly Wilco efforts. The sleek solo begins around three minutes in and gracefully dominates the back half of the song. On stage, Cline extends the solo and crafts what is typically the most cathartic, climactic moment of just about any Wilco concert. For irrefutable evidence of this claim, check out the performance of “Impossible Germant” from the 2009 DVD Wilco Live: Ashes of American Flags.
Deeper Down (2009)
In terms of Guitar Hero-worthy anthems, Wilco (The Album) has a few obvious candidates - “Bull Black Nova” and “You Never Know,” for instance. But it’s the dexterity Cline displays on “Deeper Down” that sends us into a blissful hypnotic state. What sounds like subtle simplicity is anything but, as Cline’s soaring six-string flourishes send “Deeper Down” high above everything else.
Art of Almost (2011)
Cline’s nimble elegance is every bit as impressive as his shredding freak-outs. In the opener to The Whole Love, Cline is nothing short of a mad scientist. Instead of suffocating the song, he serves as a utility player for this menacing, crawling seven-minute gem. A low rumble blends with an orchestral edge before Cline slams the hammer down with the utmost authority.
EKG + More (2015)
Urgent and bombastic, Star Wars’ instrumental opener, “EKG,” is full of unpredictable breakneck turns and could easily be the soundtrack to the bloodiest of Ray Donovan fight scenes. It serves as a preamble for the sinewy “More,” which sees Cline going for some aural moon-shot wooziness before firing up his jet engine.
When taken as a whole, Schmilco isn't the most prominent showcase of Cline’s game changing ability, but some fine jewels are there to be unearthed regardless. The quickened pulse of “Locator”’s rhythm betrays its otherwise spartan arrangement, when about halfway through the tune Cline comes clanging in to spike the song with off-kilter bursts. If the true test of a master is successfully doing more with less, this is a subtle but important example of Cline’s magic.
We Were Lucky (2019)
At first glance, this Ode to Joy cut pounds with percussion and doesn’t seem like a spot for Cline to shine. Being able to guide a song into thrilling new places, though, is part of the axeman’s brilliance. Navigating sharp and cacophonous angles, he builds and releases the tension beautifully.
Kelly Dearmore is a music writer based in Dallas. He has written for The Dallas Morning News, Houston Press and Lone Star Music.