Jeff Tweedy’s debut set of original solo material reminds all of us of what’s gotten him here, and a lot of what’s gotten us here too
December 6, 2018
For me, it was Being There. It wasn’t the first Wilco record I’d heard and it still might not be my end-all favorite, although sometimes it damn sure is. I was a sophomore in high school headed north in a hulking breaking church bus—the crimson-stain’d letters were peeling tiredly away from the van’s yellow white sheen—on a straight shot to Memphis, riding shotgun, crushing on a girl in my 5-person youth group who sat a row or two behind, and listening to our driver’s music selection. I’d turned over the reins only moments before, begrudgingly. But we were talking about Wilco because Wilco (the Album) was coming out and I was a new fan who acted like he’d listened to more than he had. So he put his favorite Wilco record into the CD player.
The screeching discord of Being There’s first minute groped at my bones and I heard for the first time what was happening in the chaos of my aching inside, manifested here on the stereo, for everyone. (Now, before you say anything, get over it. We’re all aching this much, all the time, about something.) Seconds later, a simple piano and a man named Jeff Tweedy painted my thinking and feeling heart every color.
The six and a half minutes of “Misunderstood” were my first introduction proper to the most important band and songwriter of my life. In those lines of loss, wandering, anger at the world for not getting it, condemnation of the self for taking too long to figure it out, rage at the dead ends of never figuring it out the right way, and finally thanking everyone for none of it, I felt a universe. I felt my universe. We drove on to Memphis and listened to every minute of that double album.
Tweedy has had this effect on me ever since that bus ride. Each time I listen to his music I can sense some semblance of this original feeling. It’s the feeling of knowing completely that another person sees you, which is confounding. A musician has no right to see us and we have no right to see them, much less are either of us ever even realistically able to. But the great ones do see us. Like Van Morrison’s heartbreaking Astral Weeks, there’s an empathy to Tweedy’s musical worldview—it creates a feeling like he’s actually with you, dealing just like you are. He’s been doing this with his music for thirty-five years now. It’s been true since the Uncle Tupelo numbers.
Thirty-five years removed, Jeff Tweedy has finally released a first set of original songs under his own name.
On 2018’s WARM, Jeff Tweedy seems keenly aware of his effect on people and of his place within American musical and social culture. He addresses this immediately on “Bombs Above” which makes this awareness seem more like a new, slightly unexpected struggle for Tweedy rather than an unwelcome but long-foreseen outcome. It’s a terrific burden to bear, and Tweedy spends much of his time on WARM exploring what it means to have contributed a body of work that has deeply affected the musical perspectives and emotional palates of thousands for multiple decades, while also devoting space to the effects that relationship has had on him personally. Only one track after “Bombs Above,” he delivers “Some Birds,” a devastatingly guilty condemnation of himself as a prod rather than a salve to the masses’ suffering. Tweedy even finds his own form of redemption in this strange metacognitive realm—on “From
Far Away,” the singer contemplates his own hypothetical death and upon it he humbly asks us, his fellow dealers, to take everything from him.
It’s a total comfort to hear this songwriter’s first love letter to his friends, family, and massive worldwide audience with only his name on it. It feels like it’s taken him all this time to figure out exactly what to say, to us and to himself. “When a sunny day turns to rain, think of me,” he soothes on “I Know What It’s Like.” He’s told us this before, over and over again. On and on and on, Wilco will love you baby, because Wilco hurts the same as you and we need each other to get through all this shit. It’s not that Tweedy’s musical career has been the only one to commit to this duality of thrilling personal coping mechanism and unflinching listener support system; it’s just that there aren’t many musicians out there who can accomplish the feat with such sweet, heartbreaking sincerity as to confess to all of us that he actually means it. And we feel better because we know he does. For years now, I’ve known exactly where to go when I haven’t known how I could possibly proceed. Wilcoping has stitched and restitched my feeling fabric for a decade, and there are thousands who’ve experienced this for three times that long.
WARM feels somehow like an arrival for Jeff Tweedy, even though the first thing you may notice are his aged vocal cords. It reignites the classic question of when a song stops being a Jeff Tweedy song and starts becoming a Wilco song, since the ones here are so original, fully fledged, and by this point heroically familiar thanks to the timeless musical style of its creator. The pieces of Tweedy are all here, from haunting poetic nonsense that screams truth to the evolved nervy guitar solos that owe much to Neil Young’s fragmented genius, from how-did-he-do-that strumming techniques to how-was-that-so- obvious surprises of melodic bliss. A Wilco fan can almost hear the parts of the other members, which is probably aided by Glenn Kotche’s eternally perfect percussion. And by record’s end, like all of the things in life that demand our thoughts and feelings’ attention, or like a house from some past moment that was so comfortable it hugged you, we want to return to it. We recognize the value not only in moving forward, but in knowing that to do that the right way, we must see the value in the world around us as it is right now, no matter if that’s the best or the worst place we could be.
I’d like to thank you, Jeff Tweedy, for everything.