For those about to rock, you may have to lower your expectations. Wilco’s latest, their tenth studio album features Jeff Tweedy’s most introspective work to date. It’s nowhere close to the county honk of ’15’s Star Wars, so far off that template as to be nearly unrecognizable as the same band.
Tweedy’s musings here are so personal that it’s a bit uncomfortable at times, like reading a diary or journal like folks used to use to protect their privacy when they dredged up memories to mull over and self medicate with.
He starts his homespun therapy session by reverting back to his childhood days, confessing that he never fit in: “Painting myself as a normal American kid\ I always hated it\ Under the sheets in my bedroom\ I was as high as high can get\ Always afraid of the normal American kids\ Oh bongs and jams and carpeted vans\ Hate everything I don’t understand.” His bandmates gather round for moral support, plunking softly and sympathetically as Tweedy unburdens his soul.
The psychoanalysis continues on “If I Ever Was a Child,” Tweedy revealing that “I’ve never been alone long enough to know if I ever was a child\ I was tied up like a boat, unbuttoned like a coat.”
Tweedy’s vocals throughout the piece sound like Mark Knopfler, but there’s no reverb-drenched Strat finger-picking to accompany it. Its not dance music. Even a song with the upbeat title of “Happiness” is his lament on how he could never live up to his mother’s expectations: “My mother says I’m great\ And it always makes me sad\ I don’t think she’s being nice\ I really think she believes that.” But he does have a reconciliation of sorts, with his belief that “the dead still listen\ She sings a part of every refrain.”
The closest thing to the Wilco sound of old is “Locator,” but it comes out strange and twisted, like T-Rex channeling Porter Wagoner, extra-terrestrials attempting country twang to lure in locals for some backdoor probing. “Even through the walls and blinds /Even when the wheels are whining something in the sky can find me,” Tweedy blurts out over ’50s’ sci-fi b movie sound effects whooshing around him.
But for pure head-scratching,mind-squeezing consternation, its hard to beat “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl.)” Sounding like Knopfler impersonating Lou Reed, Tweedy shape-shifts what seems to be a play on Michael Jackson’s “We Are The World” declaring that “we aren’t the children” and that there ain’t no brighter day a-comin’. “I saw the winter party person candidate, give a sermon\Shook his fist, like this.\ And everyone sat as blank as a cake and in love\ a stupid lump of clay.” A peek into a Trump rally perhaps?
Or maybe it’s just as Tweedy says in “Common Sense,” “I’m bored. All I want, A burning bush or A button to push\ A chance encounter with common sense.” These days, that’s about all a man can hope for.