If you said there were two sides to the Chicago rock band Wilco, you’d be several sides short.
On its debut album, A.M., Wilco played grade-A roots rock in the vein of Uncle Tupelo, bandleader Jeff Tweedy’s former group. For its second release, the two-CD Being There, the band took a sharp left off the alt-country path, adopting a low-fi sound that was idiosyncratic and experimental. Last year, Wilco entered music history when it was tapped by Billy Bragg to collaborate on Mermaid Avenue, the Grammy-nominated album that set Woody Guthrie lyrics to new tunes. And several band members have cranked out successful side projects, including Tweedy, who has played with alternative-rock “supergroup” Golden Smog.
Wilco remains completely unpredictable on its new album, Summerteeth, which sounds like a ‘90s mutation of the “B” section in your record store: the Band, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Big Star. A cascade of sonic effects—horn riffs, bells, singing birds, psychedelic interludes—drape over songs about the ebbs and flows of relationships. The sound is audacious, almost humorous, recalling the ‘70s through a postpunk lens.
“Ideally, I always want to be surprised,” says Tweedy. “I want to look at something at the end of the day and go, ‘How did we do that?’”
They did it this time by fussing over details. Tweedy says the actual performances were “maybe a tenth” of the time spent making Summer Teeth. The rest was studio time spent tinkering, à la former Beach Boy Brian Wilson, with sounds and mixes.
“We kept raising the ridiculousness bar. We’d finish one song and think, ‘Wow, that’s over the top. But now this song isn’t going to fit.’ So we’d take that one back apart and put some stuff on it.”
“That was the real fun of making the record. And it was important, because in the early stages, it was incredibly dark and heavy,” he adds. “The music and the production were an effort to make it sound hopeful. I wanted it to be beautiful, not dismal.”
Some of the lyrics still express dismal sentiments, such as the jarring opening lines of “Via Chicago”: “I dreamed about killing you again last night / And it felt all right to me.” Tweedy knows he’s pushing powerful buttons with this imagery, but he discourages listeners from assuming the lyrics are overtly autobiographical.
“I’m not interested in shock value,” he says, but he wants listeners to be engaged. “Those were the things that came out of me, things I thought were powerful to sing. I can imagine that some people will be turned off by the darkness of some lyrics. I can also imagine that some people will understand that it’s not meant to be dark. The outlook of the record is hopeful.”
It’s true that most of Summerteeth rings with a vital, buoyant, upbeat spirit. It seems destined to draw new listeners to Wilco, maybe even get a song or two on the radio, and that would be fine with Tweedy. Unlike the Uncle Tupelo days—when, he says, he and bandmate Jay Farrar “would pretend to not want anything, whether we wanted it or not”—he and Wilco wouldn’t mind a little mainstream exposure.
Tweedy now seems miles away from his alleged “alternative country” past: “More often than not, when I listen to a lot of the newer bands in whatever this alternative-country movement thing is, I get a sense that a lot of people are nostalgic for an imagined past, and that doesn’t interest me. It’s got nothing to do with the music, which I think is pretty damn fine. But that’s what I associate with that type of music, and it doesn’t make any sense to me. I probably know less about Gram Parsons than the people in Smashing Pumpkins do.”