Lurking beneath the surface of Wilco's new A.M., an extremely pleasant collection of country-tinged rock songs, are more than a few touches that slowly grow on you. First you notice them, then look forward to them, and then get a bit obsessive about them. In the opening track there's a soaring, keening slide riff--reminiscent of David Lindley's gorgeous sound on early Jackson Browne albums--that cements the song in your head. In "I Thought I Held You," bandleader Jeff Tweedy sings, "You're the reason / I've run out of metaphors"; he then falls silent, letting the song go for a verse or two with no words. The closing song, "Too Far Apart," has a irresistible syncopated organ swell. And on the jangly pop confection "Box Full of Letters," there is, besides another deeply pleasurable guitar line, a lyric that's hard not to read as a sidelong comment to his partner in the late Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar.
I have a box of your records
In a separate stack
Some things that I might like to hear
But I guess I'll give 'em back
At Austin's recent South by Southwest music festival, an effervescent Wilco was wildly received at a packed show in the cavernous Liberty Lunch. The following night Tweedy fronted Golden Smog, a good-humored side project for members of the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, and Run Westy Run. Now awaiting a spring tour, he's in Chicago, where he lives with Lounge Ax co-owner Sue Miller. He grimaces at the mention of the song's lyrics and insists, "It's just a straight pop relationship song."
"Jay and I didn't share records," he adds with a slight glower. Fair enough, but Tweedy is being uncharacteristically unmetaphorical. His work is obsessed with rock 'n' roll and its discontents, and it's rare that a reference to the music doesn't mean something. On Uncle Tupelo's last album, Anodyne," he offered "We've Been Had," a howl of protest against rock 'n' roll big business; he also wrote what is perhaps rock's only song about a publishing house, in this case Nashville's muscular Acuff-Rose. On the new album many songs contain similar references. "Can you keep it simple / Can you let the snare crack?" he asks on "Blue Eyed Soul," one of A.M.'s most elegant compositions. "Can you let it move without holding back?"
Tweedy grew up east of Saint Louis in Belleville, Illinois. His father was a railroad man; his mother designed kitchens. He used to write for fanzines, contributing a few articles to Jet Lag. One of his first interviews was with Soul Asylum, but this early career hasn't come up yet in Golden Smog rehearsal sessions. "I'd be totally embarrassed to tell them I interviewed them in high school," he confesses. "I just wanted to get into shows for free--particularly the over-21 shows."
Later he played in bands with Farrar, went to school, and worked various retail jobs. "Records, guitars, and alcohol; it was great for a while there," he says. "I had all the bases covered." This time of his life is memorialized by the rueful but unrepentant drunk in A.M.'s "Passenger Side." Mindful of a potential problem, he says he hasn't had a drink in four years.
In 1987 he and Farrar formed Uncle Tupelo and began crafting a fairly startling brand of country punk--not cowpunk, as too many novelty-tinged bands envision it, but a slower and psychically intense style of punk-informed roots music. At first Farrar's big, indignant voice dominated the band, but as it evolved Tweedy's more shambling and charming instrument and his less overwrought songwriting took a higher profile. Their best album was their last, the major-label debut Anodyne, on Sire, but Tweedy and Farrar split a year ago.
Of the breakup Tweedy concedes that there was "a certain amount of tension" but maintains that "Jay is the one who left the band. We tried for a period to work things out, but when that didn't happen the band made a decision to keep playing."
A.M. is a revelatory look at a songwriter whose work consistently bears deep listening. By his own admission his lyrics aren't consciously mapped out. "I think the more interesting stuff comes from getting an idea and then talking about it when you're playing it," he says. This is a dicey gambit for an artist as proud of his first-take live recordings as Tweedy--he concedes that "we're stuck with whatever words end up on the version we used." But on A.M. this approach can deliver a punch. "Put a little punk rock in," Tweedy murmurs to himself at one point. "Like a party line / Do you have to think about that?" The words nicely capture the commercial position the so-called "new depression" bands--Wilco and the Jayhawks chief among them--are in: critics love their records but no one buys them. When reminded that 90s alternakids don't like country music, Tweedy snorts, "It's a little late to start worrying about that." Still, on some level this narrowness bothers him. "I don't think you need a party line," he reflects. "You don't need someone saying what the correct stance is. I don't fit into punk rock the way most people look at it."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Randy Tunnell.