Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Guest Post: Desolation Row - The Early Songs of Jeff Tweedy

A friend of mine, Tim Regetz – with whom i generally need to have a dictionary handy just to have a conversation with – told me he wanted to write a sort-of guest post here at This Mornin’. A grad student in English, if Tim isn’t the smartest cat i know, then he sure knows how to talk like it.
While choosing Jeff Tweedy as the topic of his piece fits right in with the theme of this blog, i was a little anxious over his decision. i consider myself an Uncle Tupelo fan; however, i tend to favor Jay Farrar’s output (both with Uncle Tupelo and since) quite a bit more. Maybe it’s because most of Son Volt’s stuff is initially catchier, sonically, than Wilco’s (this does not ring true for the most recent efforts from each band, though). But with just one read through of Tim’s words, i was immediately excited to begin my exploration of Tweedy’s work. Tim delves deeply into the most introspective songs that Jeff has recorded, all the while deciphering the puzzle of lyrics he uses as a release.

Without further adieu, here is Tim’s superbly insightful look into the muse of Jeff Tweedy (complete with mp3's):

Desolation Row: The Early Songs of Jeff Tweedy

There are some artists who I wouldn’t want to sit down with, not because they wouldn’t be insightful, but because what they had to say might leave me really depressed. I think of Jeff Tweedy as that kind of artist. Sure, alt-music in general is full of its share of sad-bastard sorts, but very few (e.g. Ryan Adams or Joanna Newsom) who should be mentioned in the same breath of contemporary greats like Tweedy in terms of their artistry and the maturity with which they treat their lyrical content.

What makes the Wilco front man so sad? For one, I think he gets the contentious, sometimes funny, always disputatious conundrum that is the male-female relationship, an understanding which makes him prone to the effects of some pretty stark observations about the way we treat the ones we love and how we deal with ourselves. It makes sense, then, that the early work of Jeff Tweedy displays, as far as I can tell, almost no straightforward love songs, fitting for an artist who wisely rejects conventionally held, romantic notions of idealized relationships and self-respect.

Consider one of Tweedy’s most successful interpretive efforts with Uncle Tupelo, “I Wish My Baby was Born,” a song about a man considering his life after his wife’s death. It’s not a song about the baby, and that he ignores the regenerative capabilities normally associated with newborns reveals his dissatisfaction with those “healthy” modes of grieving. Instead, he’s struggling with how he’ll live without someone who grounded his life, hinting at both a return to the ways of a man left unchecked and “the day… / When you and I will walk as one.” Suicide? Maybe it’s a stretch, but at least a man with a pretty good reason to look forward to death, and the second-half of all of this little song’s 1:40 running time is instrumental, providing a backdrop for reflection on those despairing few verses.

mp3: Uncle Tupleo - I Wish My Baby Was Born

Probably my favorite Wilco track, “We’re Just Friends” makes Tweedy sound absolutely at rope’s end: he can’t do anything else to promise his woman of his fidelity. His voice is deliberate, worn-out. The only beautiful vocals are the harmonies, which boost his promises (“I can’t imagine ever being apart / I’ll come back to you / It’ll be brand new”) in contrast to his debilitating reflections, but even these sentiments come across like they’ve been delivered by the same man to the same woman scores of times. Taken as a whole, if this woman doesn’t give him another shot, Tweedy sounds like he’s about run out of options.

mp3: Wilco - We're Just Friends
from the Summerteeth Demos

On a somewhat lighter note, the bar-stomp of “Casino Queen” follows the formulaic downfall of the new groom. The line “The wife that I just met / She’s lookin like a wreck” sets up the predicament quite nicely: man gets hammered at the casino, finds himself at the table, married to his mirror image. But Tweedy, avoiding any of the lyrical pitfalls of such a perfect country song premise, focuses on the other woman in his life, the dealer: “Casino Queen! / My lord you’re mean / But I’ve been gambling like a fiend / On your table so green.” What does a man do when he realizes his relationship is a wreck? He tries to change his fortunes with another woman. Considering the context of his predicament, his lyrics (coupled with a complementary stomping beat and guitar/fiddle riff) are humorous in spite of the song’s weight and severity. As like most dreams realized in a bar, this one doesn’t seem like it’s likely to pan-out.

mp3: Wilco - Casino Queen
from A.M. (1995)

One thing I’ve always had against commercial country singers is their insistence on trying to come-off as the ubiquitous badass. A brief overview of the songs and topics discussed on this blog should be evidence enough of some of those problems the discerning taste has with a country-machismo stance. One of the most endearing qualities in Tweedy’s music, the one which drew me especially to his early Wilco work, was the fact that I didn’t have to dumb myself down or lower my expectations of the artist for my enjoyment of his music.
Rest assured, Jeff Tweedy can tell you about being a man: it’s lonely, you question your behavior and (im)maturity, and your only goal is to be with someone who doesn’t remind you so much of your shortcomings. As the title suggests, “How to Fight Loneliness” is the perfect example of Tweedy’s zeitgeist: this should be the anthem for any guy who feels like he doesn’t fit-in. His solution is dry, morose, and sarcastic, but it also seems to work: “Just smile all the time / Shine your teeth till meaningless / And sharpen them with lies.” If you’re smart enough, you can bullshit the room and get away with it (note: Jeff Tweedy is smart enough; of course, singing about it kinda gives away your secret). But maybe that’s the point: he’s tired of hiding, and his art is his catharsis, his confession. Maybe I shouldn’t fear Jeff Tweedy, since he’s a self-confessed chameleon, doing his best to conceal (not fight, mind you) his loneliness.

Wilco - How To Fight Loneliness
from the Summerteeth Demos

Oh, it gets worse. “A Shot in the Arm” examines the depths to which he’s willing to follow a friend into self-destruction. “The ashtray says / You were up all night / When you went to bed / With your darkest mind / You’ve changed.” It sucks realizing you’ve lost a friend, and he does what is convenient and painless for that problem: he considers shooting up. Tweedy perfectly realizes the druggie’s solution to all problems: “Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm… / Something in my vein bloodier than blood.” That he repeats the line seven times consecutively, each line delivered with growing intensity until it becomes a howling confession, convinces us that he’s convincing himself. Sad part is, if he went through with the horse-ride, he probably would forget the friend and accomplish his goal of avoiding the confrontation. But he realizes something much more about himself and the friend by coming up with that perfect, confrontational one liner probably heard on every episode of Intervention: “What you once were isn’t what you want to be anymore.” He’s addressing everybody: the subject of the song, himself, and an audience that, in 1999, was preparing for the sonic deconstruction which he would front into the next millenium. As Townes once said “I’m through with that kind of living.” I think, at the end of “A Shot in the Arm,” Tweedy shows that he acknowledges this same sentiment, but much like the former, he may be embracing only part of the solution to his own problems.

mp3: Wilco - A Shot In The Arm
from the Summerteeth Demos

To close with, I chose another song from Uncle Tupelo, this one a Tweedy original, “Black Eye.” The song, like much of Tweedy’s early(-ier) work, leaves us with a plethora of examples of reflection and despair but little hope of where to go. What always affected me in this song, apart from what would become those trademark illusively haunting (read: depressing) Tweedy lyrics, was the incessant pace of that guitar picking; it’s like a headlong pursuit of this guy’s life, his coming to terms with the masculine legacy which he cannot escape, to the point that “he took down / all the mirrors in the hallway / and thought only of his younger face,” leaving us with a distinct sense that it’s not just the character noticing these things, it’s the artistic self-reflection of a man who may have never resolved some of these issues.

mp3: Uncle Tupleo - Black Eye

For the forum in which to discuss this art which all your readers embrace, many thanks to the proprietor of this site, a man of inscrutable musical taste and a member of that noble crusade which seeks the accumulation of and appreciation for all great music.

~ Tim Regetz



  1. Excellent post...very thoughtful...enjoyed it very much!