Opinion | Jeff Tweedy’s warm notes
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy's new solo album warms the cockles of your heart
In his expansive liner notes for Jeff Tweedy’s new solo album, Warm, author and winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize (for Lincoln In The Bardo) George Saunders writes, “After many years of asking myself what art is for, I’ve arrived at this: the role of the artist is to reach across space and time and console—to offer not a cure or a prescription but, rather, non-trivial consolation." There could be no better description for what Warm offers to the listener. It doesn’t matter if you’re already a fan of Tweedy’s music or that of his band, Wilco, or his former band, the now-defunct Uncle Tupelo, or you’re just a newbie checking out his music, Warm does exactly what its title says to the cockles of your heart.
Warm is Tweedy’s first proper solo album if you don’t count last year’s Together At Last, which was more of a re-visitation of past songs—songs that his band and some of his other side projects had recorded earlier. For the uninitiated, Tweedy, 51, guitarist, singer and songwriter, began his career in the late 1980s with Uncle Tupelo, a band from a small town in Illinois, which he founded along with his friend Jay Farrar. Uncle Tupelo is acknowledged to have pioneered alternative country—a genre where mainstream country music melodies were melded with rock, pop, and punk rock influences. Uncle Tupelo was influential but commercial success eluded the band and by the mid-1990s, Farrar and Tweedy fell out, both forming their own bands. Tweedy formed Wilco and debuted with A.M., an album that harked back to Uncle Tupelo’s sound and earned for the band the “alt-country" label.
Not for long. With their second album, Being There, Wilco quickly demonstrated that their music was far more than alt-country. A double album, Being There set the direction that Tweedy’s band would take: experiments with new melodies and themes; guitar rock that wasn’t afraid to break new ground—be it in the idiom of scuzzy indie music or on the lines of more traditional rock music. Being There, which released in 1996, hinted at versatility that Wilco built upon subsequently, and pretty successfully. Since then the band has released eight original full-lengths, all of which push the boundaries in terms of creativity and new sounds. By 2002, when their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, came out, Wilco had completely rid themselves of the alt-country tag and won the respect of both critics and fans.
Running through Wilco’s discography is like discovering a journey of musical evolution that gets better with every album. I discovered Tweedy and his band late, years after their debut album and, like many people, through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot after it had become their breakthrough record. Since then, exploring Wilco’s catalogue has been a treat: earlier albums such as the gorgeous Summerteeth (1999) with its rich and full sound of string arrangements; and newer ones such as 2016’s Schmilco with its cover by the Spanish black humour cartoonist Joan Cornellá and songs with a solemn mood.
Tweedy is a gifted musician. To hear him play his guitar—acoustic or plugged in—is a delight and a lure that can make a fan out of anyone who hears a Wilco song or one of his solo ones but there is also his lyrics. He takes mundane things and makes them remarkably beautiful in song. And manages to do that consistently, every time. One of the highlights on Warm is Don’t Forget, written after his father’s death recently, and on which he delivers seemingly simple lyrics (the chorus: Don’t forget/ Don’t forget sometimes/ We all, we all think of dying/ Don’t let it kill you) in a deeply infectious way. Tweedy’s songs can quickly become earworms. Another song on Warm, Let’s Go Rain has the rare attribute of becoming a sing-along even for first time listeners.
On Warm, Tweedy’s son, Spencer (with whom he’s collaborated earlier as well) plays the drums, and the album features pedal steel, bass, and acoustic guitars that make for a very agreeable listening experience. Besides the song about his father’s death, on Warm, Tweedy sings about other themes: a lot of them reflections on his own life. Just before the album was released, Tweedy published a memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can get Back) and the album can seem like a complement to the book. Warm is like the work of an artist who has achieved self-realization, meditative and introspective. Tweedy’s lyrics and vocals have always been tender yet strong. On Via Chicago, a song on 1999’s Summerteeth, on which he sang about retribution, there’s this line, I dreamed about killing you again last night, which he sings so gently that it’s chilling.
On one level, Warm is deeply personal with Tweedy appearing to delve deep into his own self and look back at his life. But it is at once also deeply consoling for the listener who is able to identify with much of what the singer is talking about. The last song on the album, How Will I find You? is the longest and is also about his dead father who believed in afterlife and about his quest to find his wife who died before him. A touching set of songs Warm is, proving once again that Jeff Tweedy is right up there with the best of contemporary musicians.
The Lounge List
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘Don’t Forget’ by Jeff Tweedy from ‘Warm’
2. ‘Let’s Go Rain’ by Jeff Tweedy from ‘Warm’
3. ‘Via Chicago’ by Wilco from ‘Summerteeth’
4. ‘Warm (When The Sun Has Died)’ by Jeff Tweedy from ‘Warm’
5. ‘Heavy Metal Drummer’ by Wilco from ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’