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.
Similarly, Uncle Tupelo--with its punk roots--gave country a face that was accessible to indie-rock kids. From the beginning, the brooding, whiny songs of Farrar dominated the band, and when Tweedy began to emerge with his more lighthearted fare, Farrar simply couldn't stand the competition and shut the band down.
Farrar put together a new band called Son Volt, and won mystifying acclaim for making the same dreary record over and over again. When Tweedy quickly rebounded by forming Wilco from the remnants of Uncle Tupelo's final lineup, he was simultaneously underrated and overrated by Tupelo heads: underrated because he was unfavorably compared to the less talented Farrar, but overrated because he was fondly remembered as a key member of a major band that was not really all that major.
A.M. had its moments of pop perfection, such as the buoyant "I Must Be High," a dead ringer for the 1975 hit "You" by George Harrison (another guy who knows about living in the shadow of egomaniacal bandmates). But the album was dragged down by stale Southern boogie rockers like "Casino Queen," a track more deserving of Molly Hatchet.
With the double-set Being There, Tweedy consciously chose to jolt his alt-country fan base. Beginning the album with a ponderous, six-and-a-half-minute drone like "Misunderstood" (a kind of fuck-you encore on the A.M. tour) achieved that aim, but little else. Being There was too long and overly rife with throwaways, but it had enough eccentric sleepers, like "Hotel Arizona" and "Red-Eyed and Blue," to suggest that Tweedy was more than a journeyman. On these tracks, his pop melodicism was spooky and infectious at the same time.
Tweedy tends to downplay Wilco's obvious shift from country-rock to pop, insisting that he was always writing pop songs, but they were frequently masked by their arrangements.
"To me, there's a lot of Ray Davies going on on A.M., or even Anodyne," he says. "I think the fact that there were a lot of country instruments throughout Uncle Tupelo and early Wilco stuff disguised a lot of it to people. I think A.M.'s as much of a pop record as this one is. It just happens to have Dobro on it."
Still, little in Tweedy's past fully prepares a listener for the great headphone trip that is Summer Teeth. His native tunefulness and raspy, nicotine-stoked voice, always his greatest assets, flower here as never before. You know it's a good sign when an album's two most irresistible tracks are numbers 13 and 14 in the running order.
Even Tweedy's lyrics, generally little more than functional, rise to the occasion. His flair for the vivid image ("The ashtray said you were up all night") and the telling metaphor ("She's a jar, with a heavy lid") has sharpened considerably.
The overall feel of the record is of a troubled relationship being dissected from every possible angle, with hints of infidelity, reassurances of love, memories of the great early days, and scary dreams of violence to come. The album's power comes from the fact that this perpetual heartache comes blasting at you like free-channel AM-radio heaven, a heady pop collage that reminds you of a million favorite old 45s, but ultimately is in a world all its own.
For instance, "I'm Always in Love" is a joyous synth-romp that sounds like the Cars covering the Velvet Underground's "Waiting for the Man," but what sticks with you is Tweedy's repeated admission, "I'm worried." The sheer aural ambition of this album seems at least partly influenced by Tweedy's drive to disprove the nagging notion that he was nothing but Jay Farrar's old supporting player, or at least to prove to himself that he was capable of more.
"It did bother me a lot when A.M. came out, and [the reaction] was like, 'This is really cool, but wait until Son Volt's record comes out,' or 'Wait until we hear from Jay Farrar again.' Of course, [Son Volt's] Trace came out, and it was great, and people really reinforced that idea in their heads that my role in Uncle Tupelo was minimized.
"That was a little frustrating, but I felt creatively more satisfied making Being There. Maybe some of that criticism was warranted in the past, I don't know. Maybe I underestimated myself."
Tweedy's career evolution recalls the famous Dylan line "I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now." The 31-year-old Tweedy of Summer Teeth seems so much younger--and open to the thrill of sonic experimentation--than the guy once burdened by the humorless, self-important revivalism of Uncle Tupelo.
"I guess I've gotten more innocent about it," Tweedy agrees. "There was a lot of pressure in Uncle Tupelo to conform to Jay's sort of stoicism. And I don't think I did a very good job of that, obviously. In hindsight, I can totally see why I was annoying the shit out of Jay. Some of my songs had more of a lightness to them. I don't think they're light songs, they're just more vibrant."
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Tweedy has the reputation for being a workaholic, because he seems to be involved in so many projects at once. He wrote or co-wrote five songs on Weird Tales, the most recent album from country-rock "supergroup" Golden Smog, and Wilco teamed last year with Billy Bragg to put music to unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics for the Mermaid Avenue album.
But playing music isn't work for Tweedy, and he's got an unaffected nature that allows him to work relatively quickly under pressurized circumstances. He says that the idea of making songs from Guthrie's lyrics was not in the least bit daunting, adding, "If anything, it was titillating, to think how purists would be affected."
As important as music remains to him, it no longer seems to dominate his every thought, as it once did. At the time of Being There, Tweedy confronted the scary question of what he would do if music lost its importance to him. The answer he reached was strangely comforting.
"I think the only revelation I made is that it does go away, and that there's nothing you can do about it," he says. "But to worry about it and fear it going away makes it happen more often. Be unconditional about it, and realize that it's kind of a constant. And if it goes away, it's not the end of the world. You're still a person, and that's all right. But right now I'm feeling really good.