Tupelo Honey

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy sinks his Summer Teeth into the sugary pop he was always meant to play

Elvis Costello once told the story of giving an advance tape of his 1982 masterpiece, Imperial Bedroom, to the artist who was going to paint the album cover.

Costello thought he'd created the sunniest pop album of all time. He thought he'd made a Left Banke record. When the artist heard the record, he instantly told Costello that this was the most depressing music he'd ever heard. Behind the uplifting melodies and baroque arrangements, Costello was essaying vignettes of domestic dissolution and emotional despair.

With Wilco's new Summer Teeth, Jeff Tweedy has crafted one of the most imaginatively produced pop records to come down the pike since Imperial Bedroom, and like that album, its music and lyrics have an uncanny way of pulling you in opposite directions.

It's a skill that only the true greats can pull off with any regularity: to create internal tension between what is being sung and the way it's being sung. Sam Cooke conveyed it by singing "We're havin' a party" with an ineffable twinge of sadness. Bob Dylan took it to extremes by cautioning "You're gonna make me lonesome when you go" over the jauntiest of folk tunes. John Lennon and Kurt Cobain made careers of it.

On Summer Teeth, you feel that Tweedy's imagination has been unshackled, possibly for the first time. While 1996's sophomore effort Being There--following 1995's A.M.--had enough eccentric touches to confuse the band's roots-oriented fan base, people tended to view Wilco as a country-rock band that had temporarily strayed a bit. It's a label that can never be put on this group again.

Much as the album--with its parade of pianos, Mellotrons, timpanis, handclaps and sha-la-las--sounds like a predetermined musical vision, the group's mastermind suggests that its sound was not planned in advance.

"Well, we knew we wanted it to sound good," Tweedy says with a self-deprecating laugh. "I think we stumbled upon a few decisions somewhere along the way to use some different textures that kind of defined the rest of the record. The keyboard things, I don't know, they were just the most important things to us.

"I think we've learned a lot through the course of making the record. Actually, a lot of times we'd have to go back and bring some other songs up to par. Like we'd record something, and on the next song we'd figure out how to actually record that instrument, try to have some continuity sonically."

The result is one of those rare records where songs inform each other and you feel that you're being taken on a journey, rather than being presented with a mere collection of individual songs. Tweedy says this loosely conceived song-cycle approach is just the way he naturally makes albums.

"I don't know about a concept," he says. "I just had some songs that I'd been writing, and they felt like they were connected, and so I kept writing with those connections in mind. I kind of wrote a record, what I thought would be a record. To me, an album, a group of songs put together, should be related in some way.

"Really, the only thing I can say is that I knew I couldn't really write about music again. I felt like I don't want to get into a rut. And I think a lot of songs I'd written leading up to Being There were about music, too. Being There was like a meditation on it; it had just so many references to it, I thought it was time to challenge myself to write about something else."

Tweedy's been a lifelong music obsessive. He did some fanzine writing and worked at a record store as a teenager. He was a punk diehard who wouldn't even speak to anyone who didn't like Black Flag. In high school, in Belleville, Illinois, he hooked up with another misfit named Jay Farrar, and after a spell with a ragged punk band called the Primitives, they formed a reverently traditional country outfit called Uncle Tupelo.

Though they never sold more than 50,000 copies of any of their four albums, Uncle Tupelo gradually developed a frighteningly loyal following that took the band as inspiration for a highly vocal but small alternative-country movement. Though Uncle Tupelo was a feisty and energetic live act, its records were filled with by-the-numbers country tunes that added little if anything to the tradition that the band was so reverent about.

Tweedy has expressed pride in the Tupelo legacy, particularly the 1993 swan song, Anodyne, easily the band's high-water mark. But even he has often seemed mystified by the outsized legend that's followed the group's acrimonious 1994 breakup. He rightly wondered why so many nouveau-traditionalists canonized Uncle Tupelo instead of the pioneering Appalachian artists that the band paid such heartfelt homage to. It was akin to falling for The Commitments without bothering to find out who Otis Redding was.

Essentially, Uncle Tupelo did for the '90s what Gram Parsons did for the late '60s and early '70s (and what the Long Ryders tried to do in the '80s: They took a raw, rural American music form and made it seem hip to young rock rebels). Parsons has long been lauded as a musical giant when he was basically a secondhand country artist with a voice only rock fans could love. But because he shot smack, hung out with Keith Richards and died young, he seemed an infinitely cooler role model than Buck Owens or Faron Young.

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