Roger, Wilco...a case for Summerteeth
Updated: Aug 23, 2020
There is a scene in the 2002 film "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" where Wilco main man Jeff Tweedy, after hearing a playback he wasn't happy with heads to the bathroom and vomits repeatedly. It's an emotionally wrenching part of this movie which details the recording of what would become known as Wilco's "White Album", Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A key subplot is the falling out of Tweedy and creative foil Jay Bennett. Bennett is eventually fired from the band just as the album is almost complete.
With the movie and the album Tweedy went on to critical and to some extent commercial acclaim and an eventual stable Wilco line up. However, what is overlooked is the evolution of the Wilco sound and transition between the 2nd album,Being There (1996) , and the follow up Summerteeth (1999). It’s like transitioning from the basement roots of "Exile on Main Street" to the polished, experienced pop of "Abbey Road" , it’s that big a seismic shift for the Wilco sound.
The Exile comparison is also apt because "Being There" was essentially a country rock double album complete with Stones style rockers - all twanging guitars, pedal steel, bass and drums , with occasional keyboard flourishes. It could have been produced by Jimmy Miller, though Tweedy hardly has a Mick Jagger swagger it's nonetheless an affecting vocal style that suits the music showing off his Alt Country influence via his formative band Uncle Tupelo.
I vividly recall anticipating Summerteeth and was expecting and hoping for more of the same, In between times Wilco had also collaborated with Billy Bragg on a batch of unreleased Woody Guthrie material known as Mermaid Avenue . These recordings are earthy and perfectly in sync with each of the 2 x previous Wilco releases AM & Being There.
So to Summerteeth, the first track "I Can't Stand It" - - well Tweedy spends a lot of time in his autobiography lamenting this track and the pressure applied by his record company to produce a hit single and the extra effort required . Tweedy seems to be his own worst enemy at times as this track is a great opener and to my ears not over produced or slick at all. It sets the scene perfectly for what is to come, all melodic hooks, keyboard flourishes and 12 string guitars. The hook guitar riff always reminds me of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" (as in the melodic line "I used to think there were clouds in my coffee.."). It isn't a jarring reference as this all seems more "Pop" than "Rock”, in fact Tweedy has stated the most perfect song ever written was Abba's "Dancing Queen". It's just a million miles from where Wilco had been before.
The follow up track would be one of my all-time Wilco favourites - "She's A Jar", is pure John Lennon lyrics ("She's a jar with heavy lid, a cosmic kid") and chord structure (think the first measure of "A Day in the Life" with a dark lyric) directed at someone close "she begs me not to hit her" among a "fragile family tree". I remember seeing Wilco around 2008 and a female audience member was annoying Tweedy by talking too loud. Tweedy looked at her and put his finger to his lips to be quiet. Then he mentioned that the next song ("She's a Jar") was about a violent assault against a woman and he couldn't help but notice a coincidence to him that the annoyance came just as the song was about to be played. Clearly Jeff Tweedy is a volatile character...
"A Shot in the Arm” as the title suggests seems to be a plaintive cry from Tweedy hovering close to being an addict, complete with a great opening line "The ashtray says you have been up all night" . Followed by another equally great line "you followed me down the neck to D" , a random guitar reference that somehow seems to fit. I draw a comparison to the lyrics of Neil Finn with Tweedy at times, imagery that seems to have no coherence but fits in all the same , this is a rare skill (off the top of my head there is of course Dylan, David Bowie and (yes really) Michael Stipe)
Throughout the rest of the album Bennett comes to the fore with lush keyboards and arrangements. This reaches a peak with “Pieholden Suite" where a horn section plays as a Dixie type coda over lush orchestration, this echoes The Band further in their career , certainly not as early as album number three in a career.
There isn't a weak track on the album, and it is expertly sequenced by (presumably) Tweedy and Bennett operating as a true partnership. The title track near the end is the Octopus Garden moment , not least because of the chord progression, jauntiness and key change for the solo. I was reading Jo Nesbo's novel "Phantom" a few years back and in a hilarious sub plot, a character keeps referencing & misquoting the refrain "Just a dream he keeps having" with the words "Speedy Gonzalez". I say hilarious because the first few times I heard this track I thought Tweedy was saying "Speedy Gonzalez" also.
To conclude the album is the weary come down track "In A Future Age", it is as if Tweedy is exhausted and checking out. He could be excused for doing that because over the previous hour and 14 tracks of music it has covered a lot of territory and lyrics which at times are way too personal and dark but with melodies that are equally jaunty and uplifting. Does this sound familiar?- well the Smiths whole career, admittedly short, was based on this exact thing.
So Tweedy and Bennett parted ways, during the making of the next album and Bennett tragically died of addiction related issues a few years later, amidst hints of lawsuits directed at Tweedy. As for Jeff he ascended into a happier place, with accompanying Grammy trophies, general acclaim and an ease with his craft. In the process he fancied himself as a guitar hero (to mixed success it has to be said even receiving lessons from the great Richard Lloyd from Television) and expanded the Wilco lineup to include 2 x other guitarists and 2 x keyboard players.
Personally, I think something was lost along the way and it has been decreasing returns ever since. It may be a case of being in such a dark place resulted in the best music, which is not ideal under any circumstances for the individuals concerned but at least we can channel this via Jeff Tweedy & Wilco on Summerteeth an album worthy of revisiting 20 years after its release.