Jeff Tweedy started his post-Uncle Tupelo career with a song of dire tribulation and tremendous woe. On “Passenger Side,” which appeared on a comp of St. Louis bands just a few months before the release of Wilco’s debut, the new frontman played the role of a dude who has lost his license and must thumb a ride from a friend. “You’re the only sober person I know,” he declares, but sobriety sounds relative. The driver is swerving from side to side, to which Tweedy complains, “You’re gonna make me spill my beer, if you don’t learn how to steer.” The band stumbles and weaves as much as the driver, and the melody sloshes back and forth precariously, barely holding together. “Passenger Side” is a loser’s anthem, the kind alt-country seemed to love in the mid-1990s: half-assed and totally stoned, man.
Especially compared to Trace, the excellent debut from Tweedy’s former bandmate and sparring partner Jay Farrar, “Passenger Side” was aggressively minor. It still sounds minor near the beginning of the new career retrospective What’s Your 20? Essential Tracks 1994-2014, but it’s a very different and much more compelling brand of minor-ness. It’s a song with no assumptions, no feint toward greatness nor showy experiments. It’s just a few minutes in the life of an everydude. Twenty years after the song’s debut, alt-country has matured into Americana, which tends to be more self-serious and less prone to jokes about drunk driving.
Similarly, Wilco have sobered up and lost their buzz to become one of the best and most ambitious bands of their era, with a mastery of seemingly every style of American pop music. They’re the rare band that can jam persuasively in country and krautrock, that can cover Woody Guthrie and create 10-minute migraine epics of blistering feedback. Paralleling that development, Tweedy has refined a particular style of songwriting, one that relies on fragmented perspectives and cut-and-paste imagery more than it does on straightforward narratives. His songs are dark explications of an American and perhaps acutely Midwestern angst, and What’s Your 20 argues not only for Wilco’s extreme adaptability, but also for Tweedy’s idiosyncrasy as a lyricist and melodist. Despite their familiarity, these 38 songs still startle and surprise with their restless songwriting gambits.
Theirs is one of the great rock catalogs of the 21st century, one that encompasses the self-referential songs on 1996’s Being There, the fizzy experiments of 1999’s Summerteeth, the motoric digressions of 2004’s divisive A Ghost is Born, the lite-rock noodling of 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, and the back-to-basics popsmithery of 2009’s Wilco (The Album). Such a dramatic career arc tends to instill even a tossed-off tune with great import and expectation, so it’s refreshing to hear Wilco play a song like “Passenger Side” on such a small scale, with no expectation of greatness or significance. That kind of stoner charisma is largely and almost inevitably missing on What’s My 20, except on some of the Mermaid Avenue tracks (although why “Hoodoo Voodoo” wasn’t included is a great mystery).
As a mainstream history of a band that flirted with mainstream success, What’s My 20 is persuasive in its sequencing, albeit occasionally self-serious in its song choices, especially as they cull from more recent albums. Without the playfully grim “Bull Black Nova,” the tracks from Wilco (The Album) sound almost anonymous, and the absence of “Dawned on Me,” from 2011’s The Whole Love, is egregious sequencing. But as they’ve grown, Wilco have become more and more an albums act rather than a singles band. They work best in 45-minute increments, which allows Tweedy time to work and worry a tangle of musical and lyrical ideas. The upside is that they remain a compelling and unpredictable outfit even two decades into their career, but the downside is that What’s Your 20 is more or less redundant. These songs all sound so much better on their respective albums.