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Humor Jeff Tweedy. Forget what you know about himhis youthful attempts to pass as a coal miner, his punk-country roots, his role in a band (Uncle Tupelo) whose fans (this one included) seemed to think it had invented something. If he could erase himself and start all over, he just might. Tweedy, like so many Midwesterners, is already a blank slateevery big-city bar in America with a decent jukebox boasts two regulars who look just like him, and his voice is as flat as Illinois. Can you blame the guy for wanting to paint himself over with streaks of blood red and ocean blue?
This longing to be vivid is a theme that Tweedy rarely speaks of, but it runs through the music he makes, especially with Wilco. The group is the one he formed after Tupelo suffocated inside its own narrow boundaries, and from Day 1 Wilco has sounded like Tweedy’s escape. The band’s first album, A.M., was poppy, even proudly soa not-so-subtle change coming from someone who once seemed to flaunt depression as a way to wizen up his cheery, baby-cheek visage. The next record, ’96’s Being There, was a bigger step. Not only did Tweedy come off as more full-bodied than ever before, so did the band. Few two-record sets have ever felt so concise, and in Wilco’s hands, Being There’s melding of pop and country sounds as all-encompassing as any music this side of Beck’s. With that effort behind them, joining Billy Bragg to resurrect Woody Guthrie on last year’s Mermaid Avenue must have seemed like a breeze. The record has a rootsy feel, but its brilliance is in its reverence for Woody, in its refusal to push its subject into the era he came from. Not even death can make time stand still.
Like few other roots-based bands (the Stones, Los Lobos, the Mekons), Wilco learns from its own music as well as that of others and then takes it from there. Summer Teeth doesn’t represent the big leap of past efforts, but it’s a progression nonetheless. The band’s gotten a touch leaner (folk music string-guy Max Johnston’s no longer on board), although you’d never know it from the sound of things. For the most part, bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer stick to their specialties, but these days Jay Bennett, who came on board after A.M. as a hook-slinging rock guitarist, is just as likely to be playing piano, shaking a tambourine, or programming a synthanything to add a layer.
Tweedy’s always worn his influences on his sleeve; he penned Tupelo’s Minutemen tribute, “D. Boon,” and if you could say that there’s a concept holding Being There together, it’s fandom. As both a listener and writer, he’s restless; the prefix “alt” is often attached to the “country” music he’s made because he’s prone to internalize as he imitates, bending the music to his whim, making it sound new even as it nods to its inspirations.
It’s exactly what Tweedy does on Summer Teethonly this time he goes almost exclusively coastal for source material, pillaging Brian Wilson’s California and the Beatles’ England for pop sounds. Country music is a medium of being, whereas pop music is an art of becoming, and the latter is the business Tweedy’s in. The music doesn’t flow from Tweedy fully formed, and even the musicians seem to be finding out what the songs are about as they go. “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway
(again)” is the kind of joyous pop tune that seems to play itself, so by song’s end, when Tweedy looks at the ticking watch on his arm and decides he’s a bomb, he’s forced to stay true to the music and sing about the discovery as if it’s a good thing.
Despite his being Wilco’s primary songwriter, it’s hard to find Tweedy in Summer Teeth’s songs. It’s not because he’s hiding; it’s because he’s backing himself into corners, getting lost in the stuff he creates. Much of the music he’s emulating is the kind that subsumes its creatorseveryone knows what Brian Wilson sounds like, but if you try to tell me what he actually thinks, you’re guessing. The difference with Tweedy, a post-punker who’s probably dreamed of being Hank Williams, is that he’s prone to say what he feels with words. “She’s a Jar” is a valentine until he sings, “She begs me not to hit her”a zinger he no doubt was just as surprised to write as I was to hear. And the bloodshed continues, on the chorus of “A Shot in the Arm” (“Something in my veins/Bloodier than blood”) and on “Via Chicago,” which begins: “I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me.”
This devotion to the ugly truth keeps Tweedy sounding fresh almost in spite of himself; he’s always changed faster than his music, and the quicker he moves the more he looks inward. He’s a singer-songwriter whether he likes it or not; reportedly, he apologized to the rest of Wilco for his lyrics, embarrassed that they were too personal. The band told him to forget about it. The person’s the picture. The music’s only the frame. There’s no way out.CP