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Sympathy for the Angel

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and the scourge of great art

Summer Teeth is a thousand years beyond the first record Tweedy ever appeared on, 1990's No Depression, a scruffy, not-country country record made by two guys who once played together in a punk band called, so appropriately, the Primitives. For all its charm -- it's so quaint in retrospect, the noise ambitious children make when they try to do everything all at once -- No Depression offers barely a hint of the record Tweedy would end the decade with. Perhaps that's because the album barely belongs to him at all, and he has spent the past five years reclaiming for himself the credit and the respect he never received when he stood in Jay Farrar's shadow all those years ago.

Wilco, the band Tweedy formed when Uncle Tupelo was buried out in the middle of nowhere, has already released two records: 1995's debut, A.M., and 1996's double disc, Being There. The first record was a swell little gem containing perhaps three or four songs that rank among the finest Tweedy has written, among them "Passenger Side," about needing a ride after a few too many. The second disc was a sprawling epic, the messiest masterpiece of the decade -- 19 songs about the joy of making music, about being in love with being in love, about what it means to be a fan. "Being There was motivated by some unhealthy things," Tweedy says now. "It ended up being a really healthy thing to do. But I was -- I am -- tired of being called a country-rock band, those kind of petty little things. The big thing was just this sense in myself of, 'Why do I have to keep subverting all the things I had to subvert to be in Uncle Tupelo? Why have I let myself do that? Why did I let myself be co-opted into someone else's vision for so long, like this was my only chance to play music?'

"That was the first time I realized and admitted to myself that I probably would have played music if it wasn't for Jay Farrar. If Uncle Tupelo hadn't happened, maybe this [Being There and Summer Teeth] is what I would have sounded like. I had to go through some sense of lost time, like a really late bloomer."

If Being There was the celebration following liberation, then Summer Teeth is the result of a life spent reveling in freedom. The new album is like Being There condensed and stretched apart again -- and, says Jay Bennett, a "logical progression" away from the so-called "country-rock tag that gets put on us." Its every song sounds so familiar and brand-new, as though each piece contains a thousand echoes funneled through the sensibilities of a man who proudly shows you his influences but makes no excuses. You have heard this record before -- and never heard anything like it at all. "It's just acknowledging that those reference points are in you, that they're a part of you," Tweedy says. "It's not a real conscious effort to inject tradition back in the music, but at the same time I do feel strongly about it. Literature is very much like that. The literary world would be nothing if people couldn't quote and had to invent a new language every time they wrote a book. And in poetry, every step that's worth a shit has antecedents, and you can see them or you can see how they've been destroyed or deconstructed.

"Everything comes from somewhere. It's just a matter of how well it's been hidden or just finding the source."

There is a song on Being There that describes Jeff Tweedy better than anything a stranger could ever say about him. It's called "The Lonely One," which may well have been written about a particular musician. Maybe it was written about Paul Westerberg, among Tweedy's heroes and someone around whom Tweedy has never been comfortable. He says they have met a few times, always with uneasy results. In the song, Tweedy steps off the stage and stands beside us as nothing more than a self-proclaimed "rock and roll fan" who lives only to hear his favorite singer perform his favorite song one more time.

He recounts a concert as though writing about a lover in a diary. "You stood alone in a halo's haze / Shining guitar hung on gold lame / And you, you were the lonely one / You were the lonely one," he sings, his voice almost breaking. Or maybe he's writing a fan letter he knows the singer will never read. It's so sincere it's almost embarrassing, especially when Tweedy apologizes for being "just a fan."

But it's also wonderfully real; what are our favorite musicians if not reflections of our own desires, dreams, fears, imperfections? We choose our rock and roll heroes -- and even our villains -- because they allow us, for three minutes or a lifetime, to live through them and become who we were, are, or want to be. The Byrds poked fun at being a rock and roll star, Kurt Cobain griped about being one throughout In Utero, but Jeff Tweedy understands the passion of the music fan because he is one. He is us.

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