It takes less than a second for Wilco’s 13th album to make its intentions known. Opening track “Infinite Surprise” begins in medias res, with an abrupt wash of dissonance and a metronome that sounds purposefully not on purpose. On the heels of 2022’s what-it-says-on-the-tin throwback to the band’s y’alternative roots, Cruel Country—and, really, most of the band’s work for the prior decade or so—this jarring introduction announces a welcome sense of mischief. Cruel Country arrived as Wilco was celebrating the 20th anniversary of their defining opus, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, complete with valedictory mini-tour and lush box set recounting and relitigating the album’s famously tense personal/personnel drama. If there’s anything that defines Wilco’s career since, it’s Jeff Tweedy’s reluctance to replicate those conditions; no amount of creative energy and friction could be worth the psychic cost. Wilco has had the same lineup since 2005, they write and record in a cozy Chicago home base, they are a fully thriving and self-sufficient entity like few bands would dare to dream of. So the moment of noise and unease feels like a recentering, even if no one will mistake Cousin for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or the winding krautrock freakouts of 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. Produced by Cate Le Bon—the first time the band has worked with an outside producer since Jim Scott co-produced 2009’s Wilco (The Album)—the album is the sound of a band wriggling out of that comfort zone in small but meaningful ways. “Sunlight Ends” is an atmospheric twinkle of a song driven by a hushed digital (or consciously digital-seeming) drum track that feels uniquely Wilco, yet not quite like anything the band has made in a long time. The title track has a similar skitter to it that lends just the right amount of wooziness. But the goal, beyond that opening second, is not to disorient or misdirect. While the album title can’t help but suggest The Bear, which leans heavily on Wilco syncs to shore up its Chicago bona fides, “cousin” as a concept also feels familial and familiar and sometimes maybe just a little bit weird.

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