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Article in Kansas City Star about Jeff Tweedy

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With Wilco or solo, Jeff Tweedy’s music swings between the universal and the elusive


For nearly a quarter of a century, Jeff Tweedy has been writing and recording songs, compiling a catalog that comprises 12 studio albums (four with Uncle Tupelo, eight with Wilco) plus a dozen others with side projects, like Golden Smog, and collaborators like Billy Bragg and the Minus 5.


Tuesday night, Tweedy will perform a solo show at the Uptown Theater, an intimate setting that will lay bare his lyrics and songcraft. That’s a bit of a risk for someone who isn’t widely considered a classic singer/songwriter, at least not in the vein of storytellers like John Prine and Townes Van Zandt or composers like Randy Newman and Paul Simon.


Now 46 and into his third decade of songwriting, Tweedy has evolved into a song stylist, one as concerned with soundscapes and production as he is with melodies and lyrics. And his band Wilco has become a reputable ensemble of formidable components, something much larger than just the band keeping time and strumming chords behind Tweedy.


In a 2011 New York magazine article about Wilco’s “The Whole Love” album, critic Nitsuh Abebe wrote: “It’s the kind of record a lot of fans praise not by pointing out powerful songs or grand ideas but by spotlighting the musicians themselves — some imaginative, molten-metal guitar leads from Nels Cline here, some nimble and inventive drumming from Glenn Kotche there.”


But beneath his band’s musical flash and flair lie Tweedy’s songs. Like anyone who has produced such a large catalog of work over more than two decades — nearly 10 dozen Wilco songs alone — some of the results are less stellar than others. But Tweedy has amassed enough memorable songs to justify an examination and appreciation of his better material. Wilco has become successful yet remained fiercely independent of mainstream radio and the recording industry for a reason: Tweedy has nurtured fans who are loyal to his brand, and his songs are the core of that brand.


The Dark Side


As a songwriter, Tweedy can be at his best when examining loneliness, loss and regret, consistent themes going back to his days in Uncle Tupelo. The song “Black Eye,” from the Uncle Tupelo album “March 16-20, 1992,” is one of those. Finger-picking a moody melody on an acoustic guitar, Tweedy sings in his trademark laconic voice about a boy who “had a black eye he was proud of” but whose friends “made him feel somewhere outside of everything and everywhere he’d been” and who “emptied himself,” like his brothers.


By the final verse, the black eye represents something permanent, a burden to be lamented, a sign of damage: “When he realized / That this one was here to stay / He took down all the mirrors in the hallway / And thought only of his younger face.”


Like many of Tweedy’s songs, the meaning of “Black Eye” is open and ambiguous, but it resonates as a quick sketch of an outsider, someone immersed in a pall, someone damaged. The song comes and goes in less than two and a half minutes, but it leaves behind a mood that lingers.


Tweedy has a knack for embedding dark lyrics in bright, poppy tunes, masquerading a song’s drearier sentiments. “No Sense in Lovin’,” another from his Uncle Tupelo days, is one of those. Set to a sweet, jaunty melody and lathered with peals of pedal steel guitar, the song is about a relationship on the skids. The singer is trying to salvage it, but is wary: “I hold you for a little while / But I always go / When I can’t take your sad smile.”


Then he spells out the futility of trying to love someone who is self-loathing and, thus, takes it out on those who love him: “I’ve tried to understand your abuse / But you’ve got no excuse / And there’s no use in lovin’ / Anyone who hates themselves.”


It’s a theme he repeats — the loner who needs love but will not let himself be loved. In “That’s Not the Issue,” from “A.M.,” the inaugural Wilco album, the singer tells his unfaithful partner “You can’t fire me; I quit,” in so many words: “I’ve been thinking about leaving, too / That’s not the issue ... I’d say goodbye, but I don’t know how.”


From “Misunderstood,” the lead track off “Being There,” the follow-up to “A.M.”: “You hurt her but you don’t know why / You love her but you don’t know why.”


And four tracks later from the same album, in “Forget the Flowers,” more cynicism: “I can’t ever explain why I don’t feel the pain.” Yet, there’s doubt, too: “I left you behind / I know it’s been a long time / But I’m not over you.”


After “Being There,” Wilco joined British folk singer Billy Bragg in the first “Mermaid Avenue” project in which they wrote melodies to Woodie Guthrie lyrics. Tracks like “California Stars” and “Hesitating Beauty” continue the band’s rootsy/Americana vibe — the alt-country sound that Uncle Tupelo was famous for — but songs like “Hoodoo Voodoo” showed a new sound, one that filled “Summerteeth,” the next Wilco album.


“Summerteeth” represented a radical departure from its predecessors. From the glowing review in Pitchfork: “Drawing on the pop music of their late-’60s and early-’70s youths, the band members have crafted a collection of immediately infectious and consistently stunning melodies with complex, layered arrangements.”


Counting “Mermaid Avenue,” it was Tweedy’s third Wilco album with multi-instumentalist Jay Bennett, who joined the band in 1994. He would remain with the band through “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” then was fired, a drama that was portrayed in Sam Jones’ 2002 documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco.”


Bennett, who died of an accidental drug overdose in 2009, was instrumental in helping Tweedy turn his songs into lush, grandiose, highly crafted pop songs. Writing in Rolling Stone, music critic Greg Kot (who would later write the authorized biography, “Wilco: Learning to Die”) wrote of “Summerteeth”: “Like Beck and Eno, and Brian Wilson and the Beatles before them, Wilco use the studio like an instrument, unreeling mini-movies of the imagination, blending and then bending the sound of guitars, drums and a thrift-shop array of vintage keyboards.”


Musically, “Summerteeth” was cinematic, filled with turns and twists and surprises. Lyrically, Tweedy comes from another plane as well, writing much more in the abstract, surreal and metaphorical. Or just rampant train-of-thought, it seems.


One of the album’s loveliest songs is “She’s a Jar,” a dark, slow-moving organ-fueled hymn with evocative but elusive lyrics: “She’s a jar with a heavy lid / My pop quiz kid / A sleepy kisser / A pretty war with feelings hid / She begs me not to miss her,” a line that ominously becomes “She begs me not to hit her” at the end of the song.


There is poetry like that all over “Summerteeth.” From “How to Fight Loneliness”: “Shine your teeth to meaningless / And sharpen them with lies.” And from “Via Chicago,” which has become a fan favorite at live shows: “Crawling is screw faster lash / I blow it with kisses / I rest my head on a pillow star.”


Wilco followed “Summerteeth” with “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” an album that became mythical before it was released: The label didn’t like it so the band bought it back and released it, to lots of acclaim. It, too, is filled with experiments in sounds and arrangements.


“There is genuine bedlam here,” David Fricke wrote in Rolling Stone. “Creepy pianos and whooping synthesizers zoom in and out of the music like pissed-off ghosts. The close-miked vocals of songwriter/guitarist Jeff Tweedy have a strong edge-of-madness air.”


In a New Yorker magazine review, James Suroweicki wrote: “(Tweedy is) adept at manipulating simple tricks to great effect. He mis-rhymes. He uses junior-high surrealism. He garbles his vocals just enough so that you know what he’s saying, but only after a half second of bewilderment.”


And there are plenty more metaphors gone rampant and awry on “Yankee.” From “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” Tweedy’s idea of a love song: “I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue / I’m hiding out in the big city blinking / What was I thinking when I let go of you?”


Universal Themes


Tweedy rarely writes in the literal and specific. But when he has, the results have been memorable. The best example is “Please Tell My Brother,” a tender, stripped-down folk song he wrote for Golden Smog’s “Weird Tales” album.


It’s a bittersweet ode to the family he misses — his brothers; his sister and her children; his father, whom he advises to “head for the cooler and drink your fill”; and his deceased mother, whom he misses the most: “I feel your love and I feel your ghost,” he sings, with heaviness in his voice. It’s a personal tale with a universal moral: Appreciate the people you love while you still have them, though he admits it’s easy to forget that. “I should call more often / But they know I never will.”


He would come back to earth lyrically on the “Sky Blue Sky” album, the follow-up to the very uneven but ambitious “A Ghost Is Born.” Co-produced by Jim O’Rourke, “Ghost,” released in 2004, is larded with wigged-out experiments in sounds and effects. It includes the 10-minute, mostly instrumental “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Less Than You Think,” a 15-minute track with 11-plus minutes of feedback and other noise (the soundtrack to one of his skull-splitting migraines, Tweedy has said).


On “Sky,” the songs and arrangements are more formal: “He stops soundscaping and resumes songwriting,” critic Robert Christgau wrote.


And he wrote about universal things, like missing someone who has dumped him, as in “Hate It Here”: “I try to stay busy / I take out the trash, I sweep the floor / Try to keep myself occupied / Cause I know you don’t live here anymore.”


Wilco has released two more albums since “Sky Blue Sky,” and both showcase a seasoned band that seems to have found a comfortable and familiar middle ground.


“We’re treated to a string of unassuming, twangy pop songs that would fit on ‘Summerteeth,’ if not ‘Being There,’” the Boston Phoenix wrote about “Wilco (The Album)”, released in 2009. “(It’s) all familiar territory for the band, but they represent a welcome return to the sound that got them all that attention in the first place.”


That record includes “You and I,” a poppy love-song duet with singer/songwriter Feist that’s as straightforward as anything Tweedy has written: “But you and I / I think we can take it / All the good with the bad / Make something that no one else has.”


In his New York magazine essay, Abebe argues that in the second decade of the millennium, Wilco on “Whole Love” staked out terrain in the adult contemporary world, with bands like Coldplay: “Wilco has packed some first-rate musicianship into a album that feels a bit like sitting on a Chicago back deck watching a particularly uneventful baseball game,” he wrote.


It’s a fair comment, though “Whole Love” feels like homage to everything Wilco did before it, even “A.M.” Tweedy has always seemed disinterested in critiques of his songs and albums. Or resigned to not being able to control what others think or how they interpret them. In the song “White Light” from “Sky Blue Sky” he sings:


“And if the whole world’s singing your songs / And all of your paintings have been hung / Just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on / And that’s not wrong or right / But you can struggle with it all you like / You’ll only get uptight.”


Which is why Tuesday night should appeal to those of us who have been listening to his music for more than two decades. As he strips his songs down to their skin and bones, maybe he’ll shine some of his own insights upon his own often-elusive intentions and meanings.


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Actually, I thought this article was laudable not just for its snarkfree-ness. It's well written, it doesn't trot out all the usual quotes and he's put some original thinking into it.  


And--OMG--that first show of the tour is tomorrow night!

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