"I'm Always In Love"

SONG: "I'm Always In Love"
ALBUM: Summerteeth

I can't believe I let a whole month go by without posting. And I was off to such a good start! Well, consider this my return to form. I'm gonna try harder to post regularly, if not terribly often, from now on. However, it's now past midnight so my good intentions have to be channeled into a short, sweet, simple post. So I've picked a short, sweet, and simple song.

Right off the bat, that synthesizer leaps out of the speakers. The melody echoes The Cure's "Just Like Heaven", but the tone is more in line with the power-pop of The Cars. The song itself features many of the recurring elements in Summerteeth: a catchy tune, dark and conflicted lyrics, and a Beatles homage. Tweedy sings about having "a heart full of holes", "[letting] go of your throat-sweet throttle", and sinking until "I forget my mother". Yet by the time the chorus rolls around, he feels like he could "set the sun / on a big-wheeled wagon" as the keyboard theme swells up again. These confused emotions can be seen as symbolic of a kind of manic depression -- made all the more clear as he ends the song with a repeating coda of "I'm worried / I'm always in love".

The Beatles homage is, of course, the harmonized chant of "smoke pot, smoke pot" that bassist John Stirratt intones in the background of the bridge. Wilco lifted this from the psychedelic outro of "I Am The Walrus". This is ironic, considering "Walrus" fades out to the sound of voices drifting through radio static -- a technique Wilco would borrow on their next album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It just goes to show, practically every trick in modern rock music owes a debt to the Fab Four.



SONG: Misunderstood
ALBUM: Being There
TRACK: disc 1, track 1

While this site is still in its early stages, I might as well try out all the writing techniques I can think of. With this in mind, I will attempt to "liveblog" this song. I will cue up the track and begin writing as soon as it begins. Whenever possible, I'll try to note the timing. And awaaaaaay we go..

Opening sounds - tribal tom toms and feedback static. Goodbye alt-country! Here comes something new...

0:35: A bed of noise is split by cymbals and...backwards cymbals? Madness!

0:45: Ah, acoustic guitar. Jeff sounds so bittersweet. I detect a weird little wobbly effect in his voice. Nice how the organ subtly sneaks in. Jay may be a douche, but he can play a fine piano.

1:50: The song hangs in the air for a moment. It lands with a splash of feedback.

2:02: Jeff's singing about still loving rock and roll. Staying up late in the night, staring at a picture of me in the dim light of the alarm clock.

2:39 Here, he quotes "Amphetamine" by Peter Laughner, from early punk band Rocket from the Tombs. The feedback noise has returned, shifting and shaping the mood of the song with tension. Wilco would go on to use some of the same techniques one album later in "Via Chicago".

4:13 Jeff moans with the self-pity of the angsty artist, singing about being a "mama's boy", "unemployed", and of course, "so misunderstood". He can't get out what he needs to express - the "fortune inside his head". It "turns to lead" like a reverse Midas.

4:22 ::involuntarily drums on desk::

4:35: Oooh! That screechy upper register rips your ears off as the cymbals and guitars crash all around you, as if to say "THIS IS DEFINITELY NOT ALT-COUNTRY!"

5:10: Jeff's eerie high-pitched scream sounds even weirder in unison with his low, laconic, whatever-dude slacker-singing. I get excited every time I hear him shriek NOTHIN' NOTHIN' NOTHIN' twenty times on the live record, Kicking Television. So good.

6:28: What a weird fade-out. The backwards cymbals aren't in time with the guitar, there's no sense of finality, it just hangs there. But somehow it all ends on the same conclusive cymbal crash.

And now, some parting thoughts: This song is a clear statement of purpose. Tweedy is stepping out from under Jay Farrar's shadow, casting off the yoke of "country", and deliberately breaking boundaries (drummer Ken Coomer recalls, "Jeff was a bigger punk-rock fan than a country fan. It led to things like us all switching instruments on 'Misunderstood,' where I'm playing guitar"). It sets the tone for the rest of the band's efforts.

On top of being a perfect album-opener for Being There, this song contains many elements that would feature prominently in Wilco's unique sound. Jeff introduces his audience to the upper register of his voice, a technique he'd use to great dynamic effect throughout the rest of his career. As noted above, the squalls of noise would appear in "Via Chicago" and many other incarnations, while the song structure is very similar to "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart". Finally, as a testament to the lasting quality of the song, it's still a barn-burner when performed live.


Passenger Side

SONG: Passenger Side

Fresh off the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy's country roots are evident in this song's twang, but his wry humor and ear for melodies are already evident. I think this tune is utterly hilarious, largely due to Tweedy's laconic backcountry delivery and deadpan tone. The lyrics are simple and unpretentious, expressing Tweedy's anger at not being able to drive his own car around town. You can't get much more direct than "I don't like ridin' / on the passenger side". His voice sounds so young here. Funny how it would take him five albums to return to this straightforward lyrical approach.

Simple couplets like "you're gonna make me spill my beer/if you don't learn how to steer" drip with frustration and sarcasm. Tweedy sipping a brew in his seat while cursing whoever's at the wheel makes me chuckle, but the real punchline isn't until the very end: "I got a court date comin' this June/I'll be driving soon". All his anger at his designated driver is a projection of his anger at himself for losing his license (probably due to a DUI).

The bridge seems half-finished at first glance, but it provides a huge layer of depth to the song:

I coulda been the driver
I shoulda been the one
I coulda been your lover
But I hadn't

While Jeff appears to trail off, you slowly realize that the person in the driver's seat is romantically linked...possibly an ex-girlfriend, or "the one that got away". This makes his acid-tongued tone seem like a front for how he really feels - powerless, regretful, ashamed. But the character in the song would never admit that; he would just let the conversation die out, or change the topic (the next line is "can you take me to the store/and then the bank"). Even in a simple song like this, Tweedy tells us a story with some lyrical depth.


I'm A Wheel

SONG: I'm A Wheel
ALBUM: A Ghost Is Born

While most of A Ghost Is Born takes itself very seriously, this weird little rocker begs to be taken with a grain of salt. The lyrics are random, nonsensical, and don't seem to be "about" anything. Tweedy toys with rhymes like a tenth-grader in lines like "one, two, three, four, five, six, seven-eight-nine/ once in Germany someone said 'nein' ". I can't help but chuckle when I hear one of America's finest songwriters sing, clearly and with great emphasis, "Umm...". It reminds me of Pavement's carefully-crafted I-could-care-less slacker vibe. When he grunts "uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh", I get the feeling he just ran out of words - but then, as if to prove it was an intentional choice, he repeats the line.

The tension of the music, felt in the chromatic riffs and screechy, raspy vocals, is reflected in the venomous lyrics of the chorus:

I'm a wheel
I'm a wheel
I'm gonna turn on you

The song propels with a chugging intensity for about two and a half minutes before stomping to a close. Despite the tension and grit, it provides a nice upbeat break between the the mellower, more lyrically dense tunes "Company In My Back" and "Theologians".


How to Fight Loneliness

SONG: How to Fight Loneliness
ALBUM: Summerteeth

Lots of critics like to call Wilco the "American Radiohead". While that's certainly debatable, I do like to imagine the lyrics to this song written out like one of Thom Yorke's little half-poetic rants...

1. smile all the time
2. shine your teeth til meaningless
3. sharpen with lies

See? Anyways. This haunting minor-key tune evokes a mesmerising melancholy. Tweedy tells us that the best defense against loneliness is to "laugh at every joke" and "smile all the time", but he sings it with such a resigned weariness that you doubt he'll ever crack a genuine grin again in his life. How sad is that? The spooky tone carries on as the song fades through an outro of very Beatlesque backwards-Mellotron and hushed "doo doo doots" in harmony.

While it's full of bad advice, this song is a great, moody piece that sets the stage for the darkest, most twisted song on the record: "Via Chicago".

Hotel Arizona

SONG: Hotel Arizona
ALBUM: Being There
TRACK: disc 1, track 10

As best I can decipher, this odd little tune is an abstract expression of the weird feelings that can accompany nascent rock & roll fame. At this point in their career, Wilco was getting a rush of support and attention for their sophomore alum. But Jeff Tweedy - a private person, not an outsized celebrity - feels uncomfortable with the pressures of being a "frontman", and as for "the interview/ that's not something I'm gonna get used to". The hotels that make Tweedy & Co. "wanna feel like stars" are big fun, but the "rental cars/with tinted windows" put a layer of distance between the band and its audience. The song reflects the anxiety Tweedy feels as his audience grows larger - and the fear that as he becomes a "rock star", people won't really listen to him. "Hello," he moans, "can you hear me?"

The last two lines sum it all up:

- "I guess / all this history / is just a mystery to me": his new life is difficult to figure out, and...
-"One more / worried whisper / right in my ear": ...now that he's begun to succeed, he's started to fear failure.

While that might just be one particular interpretation of these rather abstract lyrics, there's no denying how different this song sounds from anyting on their debut record, "A.M." In the context of the whole album, it definitely falls on the "experimental rock" end of the spectrum, the opposite side being their "alt-country" roots. Jay Bennett's influence can be heard in the noisy feedback shrieks and layered keyboards. These aspects would pay a major part in the band's next record, my personal favorite, Summerteeth.


SONG: Kamera
ALBUM: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

A neat trick of the opening line "I need a camera/to my eye" is that it doesn't specify whether the narrator is peering through the camera's viewfinder, or whether he's got the lens pointed at his own pupil. If the eyes are windows to the soul, taking a picture of your own eyes should give you a true, objective image of your inner self. It will remind you "which lies [you've] been hiding". This song's narrator needs just that - he's lost touch with himself, and he regrets the disconnection.

Not only that, but he feels far removed from his family, his home, and his own history. The sense that he's left everything behind is clear in lines like:

I'm counted out
And no one knows how far
I've driven in the dark
With echoes in my heart

These "echoes" are the voices calling from his past, and they play a vital part in the song. He feels them reverberating in his heart, and he knows the key to regaining his identity is not in figuring out which lies he's been hiding, but "which echoes belong". A camera is appropriate here, too: memories of our past are preserved in photo albums and scrapbooks, and life without those keepsakes can seem like a "war/where memories distort".

The chorus ties everything together in three lines:

"Phone my family" - his plea to reconnect with his lost past
"Tell 'em I'm lost on the sidewalk" - his separation has left him alone and adrift in an unfamiliar city
"And no, it's not okay" - pretty much sums up how he feels about it.

Musically, this song is crucial within the context of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot". The smooth guitar strums and conventional drumbeat take the edge off the noisy, weird, abstract sounds of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart", and they open up the album's "pop" side. Also, I love the irony of pairing a happy melody with the lyrics "No, it's not OK". And Wilco scholars should appreciate all the transformations this song has gone through (like the rocking, distorted version in the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart).

As for the letter "K" in the title? I think it's just a silly, arbitrary thing, like "The Lonely 1" or "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)" or "Walken". Wilco's got a weird sense of humor.



SONG: Walken
ALBUM: Sky Blue Sky

What's not to like about this one? From the jangly piano opening to the toe-tapping beat, "Walken" is a walkin' tune. The lyrics are a little nonsensical, and not Tweedy's most insightful work. But let's face it - with the guitar onslaught mid-song, this track is all about licks, not lyrics. Check out Nels' soaring lap steel slide work. Or the boogie-woogie double-time break in the bridge. And last but not least, that killer, epic outro. You call this "Dad rock"? Only if Dad doesn't mind some headbanging.

Note: this song is not actually about Christopher Walken. Sorry. But it does feature a great little McCartney-ish bass lick towards the big ending. Geek out!

Shake It Off

SONG: Shake It Off
ALBUM: Sky Blue Sky

Two words, Glenn:



Seriously, this one's just a novelty rocker full of odd meters and warm, distorted Pink-Floyd-like breakdowns. Love it! Just ain't got much to say about it...

Please Be Patient With Me

SONG: Please Be Patient With Me
ALBUM: Sky Blue Sky

My fingers are tired, so I'm just gonna focus on one line of this song that I really, really like:

I'm this apple, this happening stone

The immediately appealing part of this line is the way Tweedy phrases the word "ha-a-appening". It highlights the minor-key chord that moves the verse along, and it hangs in the air with a singsong quality. The internal rhyme is fun, too. But the most interesting part in my opinion is the concept conveyed in the lyric: we are no different than an apple, both made of atoms and molecules, simply existing (one might say "Being There", ha ha) like a chunk of carbon - but also alive too, undergoing changes, breathing, ripening, dying, decomposing - a "happening stone". This has no bearing on what Jeff Tweedy probably meant to say, but I think it's nice.

Also, I'm not a big fan of the minimalist arrangement. The track feels like it belongs on a Golden Smog record. And the chorus is a little too pitiful and ingratiating: "You're gonna need to be patient with me"??? Come on, Jeff.