Father-son bonding activities more typically involve things like camping trips or baseball games than recording an album, but Jeff Tweedy is not your typical father, and Spencer Tweedy is not your typical son.
The elder Tweedy, of course, has fronted Wilco for the past 20 years, amassing a catalog of quietly gripping songs on eight studio LPs that have expanded from rootsy rock ’n’ roll into something more expansive and frequently more visceral along the way. The younger Tweedy is a preternaturally gifted drummer who has spent the past 11 years playing in Chicago band The Blisters. He also contributed to Mavis Staples’ 2013 album, One True Vine. It bears mentioning that Spencer is 18 and just graduated from high school.
Together, the Tweedys are, well, Tweedy. With Spencer on drums and Jeff doing everything else, aside from a handful of keyboard parts and backing vocals, the pair spent much of 2013 making Sukierae, their 20-song debut. Stretching past 70 minutes and shifting through a spectrum of moods, it’s a lot to digest—but well worth the effort. The album begins with noisy, lurching guitar and explosive drums on “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood,” then wends its way through buoyant pop songs, drowsy folk numbers and thorny experimental stretches that explore shifting rhythms and hypnotic drones. Depending on your own mood while listening, any one of them is capable of raising chills.
The album takes its title from a nickname for Sue Miller Tweedy, Jeff’s wife and Spencer’s mom. As father and son worked on Sukierae, she was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (her prognosis is good), which accounts for some of the more somber moments on the album. “I want to watch you growing old and dumb/ I want to see what you and I become,” Jeff sings on “Where My Love,” his voice subdued and distant under the stark piano part that opens the song. It’s a strangely touching sentiment, looking forward to the twilight years in a way that feels realistic, but tender and hopeful.
There are plenty of less fraught moments on Sukierae, too. Some of them are rooted in specific songs: Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Brooklyn indie-pop band Lucius add lush backing vocals to Jeff’s lead melody on the punchy “Low Key,” and their crisp “yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain contrasts with the hazy instrumentation anchored by gritty lead guitar on “I’ll Sing It.” There’s also the way Jeff and Spencer play together as if locked into some kind of genetic mind-meld. Jeff has talked in interviews about his erratic sense of tempo, but Spencer follows him like a shadow, anchoring the songs he plays on with a loose-limbed precision. The Tweedys fall into a rollicking groove worthy of The Band on “World Away,” with Jeff letting loose squalls of lead guitar over Spencer’s thumpy beat, while the drummer’s terse, shifting rhythm pattern on “Diamond Light Pt. 1” steers his father through turbulent pockets of noise. (Jeff plays four of the songs on Sukierae by himself; one of them, the confessional solo-acoustic number “Fake Fur Coat,” ranks among the best tunes he’s ever written.)
Jeff Tweedy had initially intended to make a solo album, before Spencer’s assistance with some of the demo recordings turned it into a duo project. When Sue Miller Tweedy got sick, the process of making Sukierae became something else again. During what has surely been an emotional time, it’s not a radical leap to see making an album together as a way for father and son to take solace in each other’s company while immersed in a medium they love, in tribute to someone central to both their lives. That’s a hell of a bonding experience. That it resulted in such a fine album is just a bonus.