Looking at the spine of The Wilco Book I'm reminded of one of those car manuals you can find at any auto parts store, the ones that break down every nut and bolt of a particular model of car so the do-it-yourself mechanic can figure out how to replace a starter in a 1983 Chevette. There's nothing particularly aesthetic about these books unless for some reason you enjoy looking at drawings of dissected cars, but to people like me who couldn't begin to replace an alternator in a Hyundai without one, their usefulness is immense.
If one is to take apart a band that has been a favorite for a decade, a band that has been a companion of sorts through everything from a dissolving marriage to a cross-country move to a new marriage, a manual similar to one of those described above would be a good place to start. Unlike the car manual, The Wilco Book, once opened, teems with vivid photos ranging from the typical band shots to pictures of the equipment to the esoteric minutiae of the band's inspiration captured visually. Instead of a numbered legend with dry descriptions of Wilco's many parts, the book has essays scattered throughout. Each of the band members writes on subjects ranging from their instruments to life on the road to the making of the new album. But there are diagrams: one of the events that could occur in the time it takes a hummingbird to flap its wings seventy times; one of the wavelength range of electromagnetic energy; one of a schematic of a Fender amplifier. In some places the photos and essays work together; in other places, the photos (and diagrams) stand alone.
This isn't a book that you will sit down and read beginning to end. This isn't a chronological telling of Wilco's history. You won't find biographies of the band members or a list of every concert by date or playlist. One day you might read all of the various writings; the next you might browse through the photos. There is no plot. After all, this is a manual.
Standing out like a broken driveshaft is an essay by Rick Moody. Moody wants to talk about Wilco's evolution from the simplicity of AM to the complexity of A ghost is born. He wants us to appreciate these changes while at the same time seeing some common elements running throughout: a thread of possibility or as he puts it, "Just as evolution itself is about the dynamism of possibility and change." But this book isn't about tying together things as much as it is about taking things apart in order to understand them. Everyone who has owned more than one Wilco album hears these changes and understands that the band has grown and morphed and yet at the heart they are the same band that sang "Casino Queen." Moody's essay should be read as an insert to this manual, not part of it.
In the end, I felt a little like the guy who takes apart his Buick and scatters all of the parts on pieces of newspaper in his garage. I can identify the various parts and I know their functions, but without the whole, the parts are useless. Now that I've finished taking it apart, I need something to help me put it back together again. The Wilco Book won't tell you how, but if you turn to the back cover, a CD awaits--a collection of unreleased material, outtakes and demos. Once you listen to this CD, you'll realize that it's the music that makes Wilco whole. Without the music, there would be no need for a manual. While these are not songs you would give to someone as an introduction to the band, they are perfect for this book. The stripped down arrangements, the odd versions, the snapshots of what now have become working versions do indeed make this more than a soundtrack to The Wilco Book; they make this CD the necessary companion.