Summerteeth – Wilco

Summerteeth

Wilco

1999

Reprise

Since its inception in 1994, Wilco has been a band rampant with change.  Until recently, every album has included either a new member or a loss of a member.  The constant alterations can effect a type of sound that refuses to be tied down to any one genre, or rather, even to itself.  Wilco started as an alt-country band (rising from the ashes (wow, even I hate that phrase) from Uncle Tupelo) to an almost ’70’s breezy classic rock band (I know that Jeff Tweedy hates the use of genre titles, preferring the term “Rock and Roll”, and I completely agree with him.  However, for the purposes of everyone else, I’ll use sub-genre terms.  Mr. Tweedy, if you’re reading, just disregard that entire section.).

For their third album, Summerteeth brings Wilco to an almost power-pop high.  However, this came at a time when  Tweedy’s lyrics began metamorphosing into more mature, darker themes.  According to Greg Kot’s book Learning How To Die, Tweedy (and the late Jay Bennett) used the poppy music to sugarcoat the nature of the lyrics.  However, sometimes this actually accentuates the poetry of the words, bringing them to the fore.  No matter how one views this album (even if it’s just for listening pleasure, the best way to listen), Summerteeth still is one of Wilco’s best records.

After executives at Reprise listened to the album and couldn’t hear a hit single, they asked Wilco to go back and record one (Foreshadowing, anyone?) resulting in the opening song “Can’t Stand It”.  The song is very-well written, fitting in with the album perfectly.  The guitars are loud, drumming steady, and the melody flows.  However, I don’t see how this was seen to be fit as a crossover hit.  The lyrics deal with a depressing view of God (“No love’s as random as God’s love”), and bells are heard distinctly over the bridge.  Obviously, not many Top 40 hits have these aspects.  The song, in fact, did not cross over to the mainstream, though it is a really good song.

“She’s a Jar” is a perfect example of Tweedy’s more developed writing style.  Here, he throws almost-random words together to create images that fit the mood of the song.  The eerie keyboard effects in the back of the song provide a dim expression for the lyrics to wander over restlessly.  It’s a slower song, that creates a sharp, sudden drop at the very end, as the narrator declares “She begs me not to hit her.” 

“A Shot in the Arm” is one of the most powerful songs on the album.  Starting rather quietly, the song gains traction as the opening verses progress.  Background noises come and go, paralleling the lyrics “You’ve changed, oh, you’ve changed.”  The melody is flawless, strangely, because it’s so incompatible with the words.  Just try singing the song out loud (“Something in my veins, bloodier than blood”), and see if people aren’t looking at you.  The small touch of the accentuating bass line in the background keeps the song focused, thanks to John Stirratt   The ending spins off into madness, followed by…

“We’re Just Friends”, a meandering ballad expressing the difficulties of a relationship.  It’s a decent song, but it’s probably the weakest on the album.  Even Tweedy’s lyrics don’t hold up under scrutiny (“If love’s so easy, why’s it hard”?  This line makes me cringe every time).  However, the song doesn’t last for too long, and leads directly into “I’m Always in Love”, the exact opposite of “We’re Just Friends”.

“I’m Always in Love” is, so far, the most power-pop song Wilco has done (not including “Candyfloss”).  The melody and harmonies are amazing, and the lead synth isn’t too annoying strangely.  The power chords of the chugging guitars drive the song along with the snap of the drums.  Also, with the Pro-Tools encasing of the entire album, comes the funniest lyrics ever uttered in a Wilco song.  Due to the sound effects its hard to make out, but you can hear Stirratt’s “smoke pot, smoke pot” thrown into the harmony section.  Besides that, the song is brethren with “We’re Just Friends”, looking at the narrator’s relationship problems (“I’m worried I’m always in love”).

Following the power-pop pattern (that phrase is fun to say, try it, I’ll wait), “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)” starts immediately afterwards.  The song provides an even better melody with Tweedy reaching for high notes (“Oh, it’s tough when love’s a weed”).  It’s overall a fun song throwing away most of the depressing lyrics on the album, bringing a more exultant mood (Complete with hand claps!).

“Pieholden Suite” is one of the most distinct songs on the album, and one of the best.  Thought through really well, the melody is elongated and winding, dealing with steps in the key, rather than jumps (musically speaking).  Then, after a confession by the singer, the song changes into a short march, only to return to a mood similar to the beginning.  This gives way to a prolonged instrumental, letting the music wash over the listener with its changes and leaps.  This is a rare moment on the album when Wilco is content to let their music do the speaking.

“How to Fight Loneliness” opens with a bouncing acoustic guitar, picked accordingly with the atmosphere that the lyrics provide.  These involve lines such as “Smile all the time” which grow increasingly anxious.  This is then offset by a cautious, beautiful piano solo, breaking the mood.  The chorus then breaks down into “Doodoo doo’s” instead of another verse, which gives more away for the song’s feeling.

The lyrics of “Via Chicago” may be the most straightforward yet.  “I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me”, Tweedy sings hushedly, and then we’re treated to other morbid images, “Your cold, hot blood ran away from me to the sea”.  This is all sung over an acoustic guitar (along with the synth / Pro Tools effects we’ve come to be so familiar with on the album) which creates a confessional vibe.  The fractured guitar solo comes in, and directly afterward, the song is threatened to break down.  The guitar starts feedbacking, the drums become irregular.  Only a short piano interlude brings the pieces back together.  Even the lyrics seem to be creating insanity towards the end (“Crawling is screw faster lash, I blow it with kisses”).  With the song on the verge of collapse the entire time, the resolution brings a sense of serenity.  This could be the best song on the album for its composition and musicality, at least.  No doubt, though, “Via Chicago” is the centerpiece of Summerteeth.

Quickly going over “ELT”, it’s another power-pop song with Tweedy’s more developed lyrics.  It’s a good song, but brings nothing new to the album that “Always in Love” and “Nothing’sever” didn’t already bring.

“My Darling” I believe was one of Bennett’s favorite songs, seeing as he covered it on his later album The Palace at 4AM.  The lyrics are pretty much a lullaby intended not only to soothe a child, but the fears of the narrator as well.  Honestly, I prefer Bennett’s version to this.  However, Tweedy does sound tiredly enthused with the vocals, and the musicality works almost perfectly.  The one thing I really hate about it is the “Bah bah bah bah” backup vocals, which just don’t fit.

“When You Wake Up Feeling Old” is another of my least favorite tracks on the album. Though it’s a decent song with jangly piano, tight harmonies, and good lyrics.  Just the Pro-Tools effects start to wear on me by this point, and the song could’ve been reinvisioned different to be more interesting.

The title track picks the album back up with a winding guitar line.  The chorus melody soars, and the harmonies are perfectly tight, again.  This is yet another song where the upbeat, major key music provides a paradoxical conflict with the lyrics (“One summer a suicide” and “Hits the snooze button twice before he dies” both provide examples).  During the musical break, you can almost feel Bennett going overboard with effects.  This time, however, they fit the song.  And the outro is outstanding with the bright background vocals taking over.

This segues nicely into “In a Future Age”, the supposed “end” to the album.  The song is a slow-tempo reflection on the narrator’s thoughts.  The highlight is Tweedy’s lyrics, as most of Wilco’s repertoire is based around.  The album would normally end on this contemplative idea.

After twenty-three seconds of silence, the two hidden tracks can be found, “Candyfloss” and the unsuitably named “In a Future Age [Alternate Version]”.  This last song is in fact an alternate version of  “A Shot in the Arm”.  But the real focus on these two songs should be shifted to “Candyfloss”.  The intro of insanity leads into an extremely catchy power-pop song.  Tweedy refused to have this song on the album normally because he believed it to be inconsistent with the rest of the songs on the album, much to Bennett’s chagrin.  I tend to be confused by  “>Tweedy’s decision.  The lyrics contain enough bite to fit with the rest (“We slip and slide on the stay-together landmine” is one of my favorite of Tweedy’s lines ever) and with a few touches to the music (Since this was one of the first – in fact, I believe the first – to be recorded for this album, it is slightly out of place with the rest) it could’ve gone perfectly into the mix.  But, we should be happy it is at least a bonus track.

Summerteeth is by no means a flawless album.  Which is because it tries its hardest to be perfect.  The polished music and Pro-Tools effects, while they provide interesting music, get in the way of a lot of the album.  The way the making of this album has been described as Bennett and Tweedy losing themselves in sound effects is completely believable.  Tweedy supposedly wanted to cover up the embarrassing lyrics, and Bennett wanted to make the music perfect.  I don’t know if this is true or not, but the album is too polished.  However, it is still a great album which pulls as far away from Wilco’s Uncle Tupelo roots as possible.  The songs are enjoyable, the lyrics are brilliant, and the album is a work of art, overall.  Here, Wilco pulls off good “Rock and Roll.”

[ed. note.  On Wilco’s website, as you’ll see if you click on “Listen”, the correct name for the last song is “A Shot in the Arm”.  Why my version says otherwise is unknown to me.]

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