Poison Pen

Jeff Tweedy moves Wilco further toward perfect pop...and perfect despair.

The words just won't stop. Jeff Tweedy has little control over it, he says, so his days and nights are spent at the typewriter, at the computer, scribbling endlessly into notebooks. Pages and pages of stuff, words that are dark and comforting, hilarious and tragic. The writing is automatic, scattered lines and phrases he'll later try to fit into the music of his band Wilco. Even his wife is worried. All that typing, all those words, the grim tales of domestic despair, endless unrequited love, the brief moments of hope hobbled by doubt.

"Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm," he sings on Summer Teeth, his third album with Wilco, released in March to much critical -- if not commercial -- acclaim. Elsewhere, he wonders if "Daddy's payday is not enough," and then, abruptly, describes how "she begs me not to hit her."

Maybe the man is just misunderstood. Right now he looks happy enough, like a college boy on holiday with his nylon luggage stacked by the door of one of the many hotel rooms he'll visit during the band's seemingly endless touring schedule. Tweedy is dressed in a hooded windbreaker, his brown hair tousled and short, finishing another pack of Camel Lights. There is no despair in this room, only anticipation for tonight's ninety minutes on stage. Tweedy is, after all, a family man, married with a three-year-old boy. But he has somehow moved to create these songs of sad, desperate love, of bitter isolation, songs that touch a raw emotional nerve -- a kind of repertoire that he first crafted to profound effect on Wilco's second album, 1996's Being There. That two-CD rock-and-roll epic was the sound of a man forgetting what people thought he should be and revealing what he actually is; it was bold and flawed and experimental and honest and often wonderful. And its successor only continues that trend.

No depression here: Jeff Tweedy (left) and Wilco bare their summer teeth.
No depression here: Jeff Tweedy (left) and Wilco bare their summer teeth.

"A lot of times when we played the more recent songs live, it would be very emotional for me," Tweedy says. "I would actually cry and embarrass myself on stage." He laughs, a subtle rasp in his voice. "It was embarrassing for the band. I got really emotionally sucked into a lot of songs, and I thought that was a good thing."

His paycheck is enough, but his job still keeps Tweedy on the road and often away from little Spencer, who has been talking lately about calling the police to bring his dad home. Tweedy was close to home for much of last year while writing and recording Summer Teeth, but the sounds and messages emerging from the band's Chicago rehearsal loft would be a threat to anyone's domestic bliss. On the song "Via Chicago," Tweedy muses: "I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt all right to me." Words that keep even his wife and close friends wondering.

"They understand, but I'm not saying it doesn't take some work," Tweedy says with a smile. "It can be very, very disturbing. I'm sure a lot of it is still really disturbing to her. Unfortunately, it doesn't ring true to edit those things out, even if they make me uncomfortable. That, to me, is a sign that it's probably the most real thing that you can sing."

Not that Tweedy is obsessed solely with the darker possibilities of pop music. There is an infectious uplift within the self-explanatory "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway (again)" and elsewhere on the album. But the more troubling stuff -- murder, assault, betrayal, doubt -- comes more easily to Tweedy here.

"It's a lot harder to come to terms with it after," he says. "Do I really want to answer all the questions that are going to be addressed to me about this? Like, no, I've never hit my wife. I don't know why I wrote 'She begged me not to hit her.' It just felt powerful to sing, because it was a way to communicate passion that would actually be understood.

"To me it's about wanting desperately to convey that kind of emotion about someone and realizing that the only people who can piss you off enough to want to hit them are the people you love. That's nothing new."

People never asked Johnny Cash if he really shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, of course, and the real story of Summer Teeth is that these dark passages are set against music of increasing beauty and complexity. Wilco will be forever linked with the Nineties No Depression movement, but the smart country rock Tweedy once played with Uncle Tupelo has faded into a much larger musical identity. Rock and roll raveups are few on Summer Teeth, largely giving way to dreamier pop where horns and banjo tap into the legacy of Brian Wilson's production on "Pieholden Suite." Elsewhere, keyboards have simply usurped the guitar as lead instrument, and the lush harmonies just add another layer of meaning to the often difficult lyrics. There is also a playfulness in the retro space-age pop of "I'm Always in Love" or in the hilarious operatic voice sampled (via a vintage Chamberlin keyboard) throughout "Candy Floss."

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