Wilco-Summerteeth (1999)

This is the Wilco record to get. It sounds like unreleased Velvet Underground tracks played by the Electric Light Orchestra. The country sound that had defined Jeff Tweedy’s recordings up to the point this album came out is dicarded entirely. Something like psychedelia is attempted but not quite reached. Where psychedelia came from psychedelic drugs like LSD and marijuana, this sounds more like the work of people on larger than recommended doses of prescription painkillers. Everything on the album is recorded clean then coated with the sort of cotton candy swirl that had made the sound of The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips a little while earlier.

The lyrics are much darker than on previous Wilco albums. There are a lot of hopeless pleas. “I know that we’re just friends.” “Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm.” It’s blurry where Tweedy ends and the character sketches begin. His crackly not especially melodic voice is multitracked. The effect is not like on earlier examples of multitracking on LPs. Where a David Bowie track would use two tracks of Bowie singing to make his thin voice sound more soulful, the multitracking on Summerteeth just seems to accentuate the cigarette cracks in Tweedy’s throaty delivery.

The relationship between the band, producer Jim O’Rourke, and particularly the relationship between Tweedy and the now deceased Jay Bennett seems in fullest bloom. Left to his own devices, Tweedy’s genre experiments tend toward rather flat production. They sound like B-sides. Wilco The Album was, whether it thought itself to be such or not, whether the songs had appeared as flipsides to anything else prior, a collection of b-sides-at least in spirit. Summerteeth is a cohesive statement by a band at the archetypal height of their powers.

Lyrics shift between half hearted statements seemingly taken from soda jingles and the sort of self-help books sold at gas stations and bewildered accounts of murderous fantasies of the id. Lyrics like “I’m a bomb regardless”, and “I dreamed about killing you again last night” pop up in the otherwise more subtle lyrics surrounding them meant to convey a contradiction-an energetic tension between the resigned gallows humor of the vocals and uplifting nature of the statements being uttered. Most lyrics on the album are structured around a series of these common phrases until they’re betrayed at the end of a stanza or in their last repetition as a verse by a slip, such as in the much remarked upon “She’s a Jar.”

The sound is cotton candy with the attendant tooth rot. Highly recommended.

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