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Sympathy for the Angel

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and the scourge of great art

There have long been critics who dismiss Tweedy as too much the collector, as a former record store employee who wears his massive collection on his album sleeve and steals myriad ancient riffs to form his "own" music. Summer Teeth, built upon a foundation of classic grooves, will not change that. But Wilco's music doesn't come off as contrived; it's self-conscious, but it also at times comes across as slapdash and fragile, as though Tweedy genuinely needs to write songs or he'll explode. "I totally know I only feel good when I'm writing or playing or thinking about writing or thinking about playing," he says. "I guess I just feel better. That's the only real freedom you can sense and internalize, the only sense of freedom you really have: creating."

Tweedy is one of rock and roll's last honest musicians, a guy you can believe in as much as you once could Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen when they mattered. He belongs in their ranks because you always believe Tweedy's telling you the truth, the truth that belongs to anyone who still believes in the power of a simple song told passionately and honestly. You never suspect for a second that the guy singing in that hoarse, broken voice is revealing anything other than himself. Like Young and Springsteen, Tweedy's a poet of the everyday who doesn't hide behind vagaries or ellipses. He's rarely confessional, but he makes clear the sense of how difficult it is to write music, to make tangible the words and music floating inside a person's head.

Yet, if anything, Summer Teeth fools the listener into thinking Tweedy is serving up nothing but confessionals. The words hint -- hell, they scream -- at a darkness lurking beneath the feel-good grooves of songs such as "Can't Stand It," "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)" and "A Shot in the Arm." Taken literally, the record chronicles a relationship crumbling beneath the weight of distance and misunderstanding. Lovers stay up all night smoking, dreaming of what used to be and what could have been. A husband promises his wife (or maybe a father tells a child) that "he'll come back to you" and that he and unknown others are "just friends." When Tweedy sings that he's always in love, you feel as though he doesn't necessarily mean with the woman with whom he shares his life. He wonders "How to Fight Loneliness." He worries about waking up feeling old. And, of course, he dreams of killing a lover, then tells her about it, promising he's coming home soon. Tweedy even opens the record singing through a moan: "The way things go / You get so low / Struggle to find your skin / Hey ho / Look out below / Your prayers will never be answered again."

Yet behind him the band plays as though with the biggest grin, all organs and piano and ring-a-ding cymbals and orchestra bells. Never has a band gone to so much trouble to make suffering feel like a happy thing. Jay Bennett says he and Tweedy intentionally brightened up the music to compensate for the somber lyrics. And Bennett insists he doesn't read anything into the words -- that he interprets them not as Tweedy's oh-shit revelations, but simply as stories told in the first person. "There are some music fans that want to connect with the lyrics and don't give a shit what that guy was writing about," says Bennett, who joined Wilco shortly after the band began touring for A.M. "And then there are people who I quite frankly think are just mistaken, who want to find out what the guy was writing about. I think that's doing the music a disservice. That's why I hate Sting. Sting in every interview will tell you exactly what he wrote every song about. Hey, then why'd you write the song?" Tweedy admits he wouldn't want to listen to these lyrics if they were accompanied by only an acoustic guitar. He also likes to say that he never worries about revealing too much of himself in his songs; they are, after all, the sum total of who he is. Rather, he worries too much about explaining everything in an interview. He is not Sting. But he will say that the songs are not to be read as autobiography. He does not dream of killing his wife.

But as the father of a 3-year-old son and as the husband of Sue Miller, a revered figure in Chicago's club scene, Tweedy is trying to grapple with many new emotions. His son now knows when Daddy's going on tour; he wants to know why his father is leaving again. It's not an easy thing trying to balance life on the road with some facsimile of domesticity. It can drive a person crazy. Tweedy, who spends every free second absorbed in the writings of Henry Miller or Sherwood Anderson, often talks about the lack of irony in his music, but he also realizes that the opposite of irony is vulnerability. In "She's a Jar," the second song on Summer Teeth, he writes, "when I forget how to talk, I sing." If anything, the record acts as something of a release valve; maybe this is how he communicates after all.

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