Wilco – Summerteeth

Summerteeth (1999)


1. Can’t Stand It 2. She’s A Jar 3. A Shot In The Arm 4. We’re Just Friends 5. I’m Always In Love 6. Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again) 7. Pieholden Suite 8. How To Fight Loneliness 9. Via Chicago 10. ELT 11. My Darling 12. When You Wake Up Feeling Old 13. Summer Teeth 14. In A Future Age 15. Candy Floss 16. A Shot In The Arm (Alternate Take)


Well, if Being There was the equivalent of flipping the bird to the whole alt-country scene, Summerteeth is like grudge fucking its mom and then never calling her again. This is the 60s keyboard pop album – and what could be more antithetical to the ultra-organic austerity that Uncle Tupelo had established as the foundation of the alt-country genre? Keep in mind that by 1999, alt-country was a well-established entity that many people thought was going to be the Next Big Rock Trend. So by abandoning it at a critical moment, Tweedy might as well have gotten dressed up in a schoolgirl outfit and made out with Madonna at the MTV Video Awards for all the ire his new direction drew from the most hardcore No Depression adherents, many of whom still refuse to forgive him. That’s pretty dumb, because there are very few 90s alt-country stalwarts—whether it be Brent Best, Rhett Miller, Ryan Adams, and, yes, even Jay Farrar—who didn’t undergo some level of impure transformation, and none have faced the same kind of backlash as Wilco. I guess that mostly has to do with the fact that none of those people have expanded their fan bases near as widely as Wilco has, and success breeds contempt. Not to mention the sorts of people the fan base expanded to – those dreaded hipster indie rockers!

Better them than, like, teenyboppers, right? Indeed, Summerteeth is a pop album, but in the way that Pet Sounds is a pop album rather than in a bright, shiny sell out way like, I dunno, Rod Stewart. There are mellotrons, synths and bubblegum melodies abound, but man, at their core, these songs are so fucking sad. If I was feeling particularly harsh, I might even say that all the orchestral keyboard instrumentation is just glorified window dressing administered in a power grab by one Mr. Jay Bennett. Nowadays, people are quick to give Bennett a lion’s share of the credit for making Wilco’s golden era so golden, but the way I see it, this is the album over which he had the most control, and for me it’s the weakest non-Mermaid Avenue record they made during his tenure in the band. Of course, when its competition is Being There and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, that’s hardly a slight. But I just don’t feel like it belongs in the top tier of Wilco albums like most people do.

To be fair, my reasoning has more to do with the fact that there is a bit too much filler here than because of the hyper-dense production. If Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s path to new sonic territory was having “holes where the music should be,” as Tweedy claims in the I Am Trying To Break Your Heart film, then Summerteeth takes the opposite approach: piling on as many overdubs and miscellaneous keyboard effects on top of every song as possible until it starts to sound cool. And despite the fact that the latter is a much less novel idea than the former—people have been making trippy mellotron soundscapes since, like, “Strawberry Fields Forever”—it still does wind up sounding cool. There are two songs, however, where I feel as though Bennett goes overboard. One is “Pieholden Suite,” which is basically a medley of a several brief, unrelated pieces of music that weren’t interesting enough to form the basis of their own songs so they just strung them together with a bunch of clichéd 60s instrumentation to make one single uninteresting song. The other is the sacred cow “Via Chicago.” It’s among most people’s favorite Wilco songs, and it’s a great song, but I certainly don’t feel as though the Summerteeth version is the definitive one. The keyboard tones just seem out of place in this sort of slow, three-chord folk song, and when Bennett starts to throw the kitchen sink at it with some ugly guitar and a series of jarring shifts in intensity, I feel like I’m being distracted from the song’s natural autumnal starkness.

However, “Via Chicago” is definitely a major step in Tweedy’s development as a songwriter; he was beginning to address some of his personal demons, such as his marital woes and his struggles with depression, with a method I would describe as introspective abstraction. Everyone always points to the big shock lines on this album, such as, “I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt all right to me” from “Via Chicago,” or, “She begs me not to hit her,” from the low-humming, Dylan-y “She’s A Jar,” but I don’t take them as admissions that he was actually beating his wife. I see them as part of the stream of association wordplay that characterizes the other parts of the songs; they were just the most visceral way he could think of to transcribe the emissions of his increasingly troubled mind.

Such angst is inescapable on this album, and is encapsulated most effectively on “A Shot In The Arm,” where the dynamic between the droning, burbling electronics and the pretty piano line creates a powerful tension that underscores the desperation in Tweedy’s pleas for an end to his antipathy. He even touches on some teenage angst, and I can be more than sympathetic with the Beatle-y piano ballad “We’re Just Friends,” since that was basically the story of my life in 8th grade. Even the happy sounding songs—surging rockers “I’m Always In Love” and “ELT,” the effortlessly breezy title track—are sneakily filled with depression-fueled lyrics. The only moment of unabashed levity on the whole thing is the uber-cheery “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again),” which, with its big major chords, handclaps, and super poppy titular refrain, sounds oddly like the work of happy, confident individuals. The slick as hell “Can’t Stand It” at least splits the difference between cheerful and angsty in a concerted effort to achieve radio friendliness. Really; Reprise sent the band back to the studio after the rest of the album was completed to write and record a “hit single.” Unfortunately, despite being awesome, it didn’t manage to supplant any airplay time from “Livin’ La Vida Loca” back in ’99. That pisses me off.

One other thing that pisses me off is that this album is too long. I mean, it’s got an unconscionable two “hidden” tracks, one of which is an “alternate take” of “A Shot In The Arm.” Why? Embracing the CD age after all that “lets make a 70s double album!” nonsense the last time around, eh? I’m quite sure that if the album only had 11 or 12 songs on it instead of 16, I’d probably give it an A. But it doesn’t, so I won’t.

Wait, I’m not done telling you about things that piss me off. Here is a list of all the things that are pissing me off right at this very moment:

  1. My over-consumption of Peach Schnapps last night
  2. The dining hall
  3. Chilly weather that gives me sniffles
  4. Lack of sex
  5. Renaissance poetry
  6. Bono

Only six things? Wow, not bad.

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