Wilco frontman takes a more direct lyrical approach on striking new album
Jeff Tweedy has never been much of a lyricist, but his cryptic words do provide occasional clues to his rich, puzzling music. On Sky Blue Sky, the best Wilco album since 1999’s Summerteeth, Tweedy provides such a clue in the song “Impossible Germany.” “But this is what love is for,” he warbles in his reedy tenor, “to be out of place, gorgeous and alone, face to face.”
“Out of place, gorgeous and alone” is a good description for much of Tweedy’s music. His effortlessly lovely pop melodies—echoing such role models as Brian Wilson, Robbie Robertson and Paul Westerberg—consistently draw us in, but the songs never allow us to get comfortable. There’s always something about the quirky arrangements, the lo-fi vocals and/or the willfully obscure lyrics that keep listeners at arm’s length.
Such alienation seemed to be the point on Wilco’s overly arch art-rock projects Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, but on Sky Blue Sky Tweedy reaches out from his solitude in hopes of meeting his listeners—both the woman in the song and the strangers buying his CDs—face-to-face. He succeeds, not because of the lyrics themselves, but because of what the lyrics point to—music that throws off formalist experiments to embrace Tweedy’s Americana past, his gift for harmonic pleasure and an audible desire to connect.
On “Impossible Germany,” the two-and-a-half minutes of vocals are merely the set-up for the three-and-a-half-minute instrumental coda that delivers the emotional impact at which Tweedy’s words have already hinted. Most of this coda is a guitar duet between Tweedy and Nels Cline. Their twin melodic lines diverge and converge again and again like lovers seeking both individuality and intimacy, a combination as elusive as “an impossible Germany, an unlikely Japan.” Whether it’s a combination worth pursuing is argued by the two guitars, so striking in their divergent melodies and so satisfying in their convergent harmonies.
Cline was best known for his noisy avant-garde contributions to both jazz and indie rock before joining Wilco in time for 2005’s Kicking Television: Live in Chicago. But he reveals his inner Ry Cooder on Sky Blue Sky, playing hillbilly and rock ’n’ roll licks with unexpected restraint and lyricism mirrored by Tweedy himself. Melody has always been Tweedy’s greatest gift, and in the understated, rootsy arrangements on this album, these tunes have more room to unfold than ever before.
Tweedy’s lyrics do have admirers. There are those who are so entranced by the seductive sound and bewildering mystery of lines such as “I am an American aquarium drinker; I assassin down the avenue,” that they’re willing to overlook the fact that the couplet is empty of meaning and completely divorced from the way human beings actually talk. By contrast, the first lines on the new album are, “Maybe the sun will shine today, the clouds will blow away; maybe I won’t feel so afraid.” That’s fairly generic pop songwriting, but at least it sounds like a real person expressing a real feeling—and the music behind the lyrics is so evocative that these ordinary words open up to heightened emotions.
Just as self-indulgently obscurantist lyrics shackled Tweedy’s music on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, so did the artsy arrangements on those two over-praised albums. It’s easy to throw words together if you’re not worried about meaning or plausibility, and it’s no problem to heap random sound effects on your tracks if you’re not worried about groove or melody. Wilco’s two prog-rock projects seduced listeners with the sheer novelty of their sound, but once the novelty wore off, there was little of substance to return to. By contrast, the best songs on Being There and Sky Blue Sky will show up on mix CDs, at guitar pulls and on cover-band set lists for years to come.
The lyrics on the new album’s opening track, “Either Way,” declare that the singer will accept whatever happens—sun or clouds, love requited or not—and there’s a sense that Tweedy is equally open to however the music might evolve. There’s no evidence that a preconceived idea has been imposed on the song; instead the pretty guitar arpeggios patiently explore possible paths and finally blossom into a solo that exemplifies the unhurried stoicism suggested by the words.
The album’s title track contrasts our “rotten time” of broken windows, stumbling drunks and marching military bands with such reasons for optimism as a blue sky and another day of survival. Five years ago, Tweedy might have emphasized the rottenness, but now he reinforces the optimism in his country-guitar strum, backed by Cline’s steel-guitar fills and in an elegant, slow-motion guitar solo. The fragility of such hopefulness is obvious from the thin, note-missing vocal, but the tune’s loveliness convinces us we can cling to hope with some confidence nonetheless.
Sky Blue Sky could be described as Tweedy’s return to the alternative-country of his first band, Uncle Tupelo. The vocal harmonies on “You Are My Face” clearly resemble the Carter Family’s hillbilly hymns. “Sky Blue Sky” pits weeping steel guitar against country-swing rhythm guitar. “Please Be Patient with Me” opens with a Doc Watson-like acoustic-guitar figure. The strum-along rhythm and nasal bray of “What Light” resembles an early Dylan folk song.
But Wilco hasn’t gone country so much as it’s gone pop. Consciously or unconsciously, Tweedy sensed that if he wanted to increase the connectivity of his songs, he had to rely more on the emotional voltage of his wonderful melodies—and to do so he had to simplify both his lyrics and arrangements. Once he removed the artsy cleverness from his music-making, it was inevitable that the foundations of his musical instincts—country, rock ’n’ roll, gospel—would return to the foreground. The great thing about pop music is the way it provides a license to grab from anything and everything to make a good song.
No band was better at such grabbing than The Beatles, and Sky Blue Sky recalls The Beatles far more than the Flying Burrito Brothers or Sonic Youth. This is most obvious on “Hate It Here,” which begins as a better-than-average country lament about constantly cleaning the house to distract oneself from a departed lover. About two minutes into the song, however, the distraction no longer works. Casting stoicism aside, Tweedy suddenly erupts into a raucous, choppy guitar riff and the howling complaint, “I hate it here when you’re gone,” sounding exactly like John Lennon circa The White Album. Wilco’s Glenn Kotche even captures the loosened-skin thump of Ringo Starr’s drumming.
Tweedy will never be the lyricist Lennon was—the Wilco leader is more like George Harrison as a lyricist, annoying when he tries to be poetic, acceptable when he’s straightforward—but he does share Lennon’s instincts for melody and the drama of a four-minute song. Like Lennon’s, Tweedy’s music can be sad without being whiny, optimistic without being smarmy and accessible without being dumb. With Sky Blue Sky, he reclaims the pop-rock potential he ?ashed on Being There and Summerteeth.