Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne

Anodyne (1993)

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1. Slate 2. Acuff-Rose 3. The Long Cut 4. Give Back The Key To My Heart 5. Chickamauga 6. New Madrid 7. Anodyne 8. We’ve Been Had 9. Fifteen Keys 10. High Water 11. No Sense In Lovin’ 12. Steal The Crumbs

 

Just because Jay Farrar mumbles and never smiles doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings. Jay and I have that in common. Like Cooley says, “Just cause I don’t run my mouth don’t mean I got nothing to say”… and Jay clearly has a lot of thoughts about the disintegration of his band and his friendship with Jeff Tweedy, and he’s going to communicate them to you via beautiful country songs and vague, idiosyncratic wordplay. So get ready if you ain’t: Anodyne is a breakup album. The Blood On The Tracks of bromance.

Does that make it sound horrible? I’m such a huge Judd Apatow aficionado that to me, “the Blood On The Tracks of bromance” sounds like a great idea for a movie where Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd are best friends but have their friendship fall apart when they both set out to romantically pursue Leslie Mann. I would probably watch that movie 817 times, after spending about $100 dollars on popcorn and tickets to see it in the theater and then buying the triple disc Super Bonus Deluxe Gangbang Special Edition on DVD. Similarly, this album rules. Anodyne presents Uncle Tupelo as an expanded unit that has absorbed the lessons in American folk and playing guitars with holes in them it learned on March 16-20, 1992 while retaining some of the electrically-charged fire of their earlier days, resulting in a beautifully well-balanced and poignant swan song. And boy, do they know it’s a swan song. All Farrar’s songs are pointed emotional reactions to separation and relationships in which parties have grown irreparably apart… like the lilting opener “Slate.” Lord knows what “Farcical hair appears as a blindside” means, but I think we can all manage to parse out the meaning of lyrics like “What the hell were we thinking/before the fire burned out” and “Can’t find you now/Didn’t know you then.” There’s clearly a deep emotional reaction to the impending split occurring with Jay here, though it’s definitely one of acceptance and readiness to move on.

That split had been a long time coming, after all. After Mike, the glue that held Jay and Jeff’s crumbling relationship together, left the band, they tried to stave off the inevitable through strength in numbers by not only replacing Heidorn with Ken Coomer, but also bringing in John Stirratt and Max Johnston to play instruments and do other stuff that band members do, like hang out with Jeff and be pissed off at Jay for being a dick. Of course, this move just ended up causing a messier divorce. But fortunately for Tweedy, he managed to get custody of the entire band! Indeed, the actually rather bland “No Sense In Lovin’” can properly be called the first Wilco song, since it does not feature Jay but does feature everybody, minus Brian Henneman, who would play on the first Wilco album. Similarly, I feel that Jay’s rocker “Chickamauga,” spiritually at least, can be called the first Son Volt song… “Chickamauga’s where I’ve been/Solitude is where I’m bound/I don’t ever want to taste these tears again.” Underscored by the fact the Jeff is singing harmony, it’s clearly an anthem designed for and by someone who can’t wait to strike out on their own. Though I do feel like the song has something that the majority of Son Volt’s body of work lacks – Farrar’s lead guitar playing. Nowadays, he barely ever does anything but strum acoustic guitar, but I’ve always loved his messy, whammy bar-happy soloing.

However, for now, the band is united, and as a result, Anodyne is beautifully rich in texture, at times possessing stunning finesse, but also grit when needed. Dobros, mandolins, banjos and fiddles are often trotted out in order to emulate the band’s country & western heroes as well as possible. And you know what they say: the best way to emulate someone is to, uh, have them sing instead of you. Doug Sahm of the gone but not forgotten Sir Douglas Quintet (a band that similarly straddled rock and country back in the 60’s) pops in to sing a verse on the cover of his “Give Back The Key To My Heart.” Fantastic – don’t tell me Uncle Tupelo weren’t the best damn country band around in 1993 (best rock band? Let’s not get into it). Farrar’s songs, save “Chickamauga,” all fit next to it snugly, within a standard “country” style. And they’re beautiful songs, all of them. But it’s Jeff who provides the variety, and Jeff who sorta steals the show (and not “steals the shower,” as I originally wrote). He gives us beautiful lilting folk-country (“New Madrid,” one of my favorite ever Tweedy songs), three-chord hoedown country (“Acuff-Rose”) and a jagged little anti-music biz rocker (“We’ve Been Had”). Not to mention the closest thing Uncle Tupelo ever had to a “hit single,” the rocker “The Long Cut.” It’s the song the record label requested they play on their first and last ever TV appearance on Conan O’Brien… as you might imagine, Farrar was none too happy about being forced to play a Tweedy song on national television. He seemed to take the fact that Jeff was writing better songs and showing more confidence in them as signs that he was becoming insufferably conceited and arrogant… I dunno, that just sounds like healthy artistic growth to me, Jay. Maybe you were just a bit jealous that his songs were getting to be a little bit better than yours? And maybe the fact that you broke up the band over that is a sign that you, in fact, are the arrogant douche?

Uncle Tupelo changed a whole lot in just three years, and they accomplished a lot with the progression of sounds they went through in that all too brief period of time. And it’s curious how that progression is viewed in hindsight as meaning such different things for Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. For Tweedy, it’s seen as the first baby steps in a drastic and ongoing musical evolution. For Farrar, most see it as the golden years of a stagnating post-Tupelo career. Anodyne is a precious record because I think it presents both parties, for the first and last time, as equal powers – not that they’ve necessarily gone in opposite directions since. But their combined powers at this stage make this album a peak that both have rarely managed to match afterwards.



2 Comments

  1. Emily wrote:

    Wow. I should probably listen to this record, eh?

  2. Greg wrote:

    For sure. Nice analysis. Found this by googling one of the silliest lyrics ever.