Music

In Order to Understand ‘Schmilco,’ Let’s Do An Extremely Deep Dive Into Wilco’s Career


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Last week, Wilco released its 10th album, Schmilco. As per usual for a Wilco LP, Schmilco has gotten pretty good reviews. The same adjectives keep recurring to describe the album: quiet, simple, loose, emotional, personal. To be fair, those adjectives have appeared in many of Wilco’s previous album reviews. So, what makes Schmilco different?

This is a tricky question for a band like Wilco, which has made records that people love (Being There, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot), records that people don’t love (Sky Blue Sky), and records that were largely greeted with indifference (Wilco (The Album)). Wilco has reached that strange point in its career when critics and fans will reflexively praise its latest work out of respect, and then quickly cast it aside, as if it never really existed. This means that a record like Schmilco — the title is a reference to Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilssonhas a high likelihood of being lost in the shuffle.

So, again: What makes Schmilco different from all the other Wilco records? To get to the bottom of this, let’s walk through the five stages of Wilco’s career, and then back to Schmilco.

Stage 1: Pre-Wilco (1989-94)
In the beginning, Uncle Tupelo was Jay Farrar’s band. Farrar projected authority, because he was the one with the perfect voice for alt-country. Jeff Tweedy’s voice was thinner and more malleable, which served him well later on when alt-country became a disreputable term. But in Uncle Tupleo, Farrar could get away with singing about coal miners eating bulldog gravy and cornbread because he sounded like an omniscient Old Testament God whenever he opened his mouth. He could have been Tweedy’s dad, even though Farrar was only eight months older than Tweedy.

In light of Wilco’s ascendancy, Uncle Tupelo’s story was reframed — in retrospect, it’s impossible not to dwell on the rivalry between Farrar and Tweedy, and how Tweedy took power away from Farrar as the band got more popular and slowly disintegrated. For years, both men shared an apartment in their hometown of Belleville, Ill. Farrar was taciturn and uncommunicative, while Tweedy was emotional and desperate for human connection. In Greg Kot’s 2004 Wilco biography, Learning How To Die, there’s a funny-sad anecdote about the night that Tweedy confronted Farrar in their apartment about Farrar’s decision to break up the band in late 1993, on the eve of what became Uncle Tupelo’s farewell tour.

“Tell me to my face … Why do you hate me?”

Farrar squared up with the person he’d been playing in bands with for 12 years. “You don’t know what it’s like to stand onstage with somebody every night who loves themselves as much as you do.”

Tweedy was taken aback. “You’re right, I don’t have any idea.”

There’s a lot going on here, but what comes through is Farrar’s discomfort with how Uncle Tupelo’s power dynamics were no longer working in his favor. Tweedy’s progress in the band was incremental — after the Farrar-dominated 1990 debut No Depression, Tweedy wrote his best song up to that point, “Gun,” which led off Uncle Tupelo’s next record, 1991’s Still Feel Gone. Then, Tweedy topped himself again with “Black Eye,” a standout from 1992’s March 16-20, 1992. By Uncle Tupelo’s final album, 1993’s Anodyne, recorded with a revamped lineup that included future Wilco members John Stirratt, Ken Coomer, and Max Johnston, Tweedy and Farrar were essentially equals. When Uncle Tupelo made its national television debut on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1994, Tweedy was the one at center stage, not Farrar.

Stage 2: Maimed By Rock ‘n’ Roll (1995-97)
I became a Wilco fan with its second LP, 1996’s Being There. It’s still one of my favorite Wilco records. I like pretty much everything about Being There. I like the sprawl of it. I like how every song sounds even better live. I like the keyboards on “Far, Far Away.” I like the outro guitar solo on “Hotel Arizona.” I like the shambles of “Dreamer in My Dreams.” I like how you can hear Tweedy inventing the band’s future on “Misunderstood” and “Sunken Treasure.” I like that Tweedy took a big hit on the album’s royalties because he insisted that Being There be released as a double-CD and sold for the price of a single CD (even though Being There would’ve fit on a single CD).

I didn’t care about Wilco’s 1995 debut A.M. for a long time. I blame this scene from the 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.

Imagine you’re Jeff Tweedy, and you’re standing backstage with a bunch of record-store bros after pouring your heart out for a few hours in front of a paying audience in San Francisco. You’re in the midst of creating Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the album that will come to be viewed as your defining masterpiece, but at the moment you’re deep in the weeds and trying to find a way out. You know your last record, Summerteeth, was a little over-produced. But those songs were among the most wrenching and traumatic of your career. The first time you demoed those Summerteeth tunes, you were breaking down in tears between takes, for chrissakes. But there’s no doubt in your mind that Summerteeth was an essential step forward. And now you have to listen to this f*cking guy talk about Summerteeth with thinly disguised disdain?

I like A.M. now. For a band with a lot of Sunday morning records, A.M. stands out as a really good Saturday night album. It’s Wilco’s “More Cowbell” LP. It also has “Passenger Side,” maybe the greatest song ever written about life in a dead-end town. But it’s clear that Tweedy had to get away from the sound of A.M. and, more important, the people who loved A.M. and Uncle Tupelo.

Stage 3: Reservations (1998-2004)
Tweedy at heart is a reactionary, and the next several years of Wilco’s career were driven by Tweedy reacting against “the A.M. guy” from I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. The result was Wilco’s most celebrated period — 1999’s Summerteeth, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and 2004’s A Ghost is Born, plus the Mermaid Avenue albums with Billy Bragg — when Tweedy once and for all put the band’s alt-country baggage to bed. But Tweedy would later also react against the mythology of his “experimental” albums, and how fans romanticized the wreckage of Tweedy’s personal life and projected it on to his songs.

If you’re looking for a through-line with Jeff Tweedy’s interviews over the years, it just might be his oft-professed disdain for the “tortured artist” archetype. “I always found the concept of a tortured artist distasteful,” Tweedy told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “At the same time, when I started to get healthy I realized there’s no shortage of damage there from myself. My distaste for it probably prevented me from getting help sooner. I didn’t want to admit that I was falling into a cliché.”

It’s impossible to tell to what degree this distaste for rock mythology is informed by Tweedy’s own fans (which include worshipful early ’00s rock writers), and how Wilco’s “tortured artist” records have become the measuring stick against which the band’s subsequent work has been judged. There are perhaps no better examples of “tortured artist” albums from the past 20 years than Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and A Ghost is Born — at least not by an artist who didn’t wind up killing himself. The problem (as some fans seem to view it) is that Tweedy grew out of that and went on to ease more or less gracefully into middle age. Some Wilco fans would rather dwell on the chain-smoking miserablist who cut a handsome, Ewan McGregor-in-Trainspotting-type figure in the late ’90s.

Wilco’s middle period is marked by depression, drug addiction, inter-band tension, and marital discord. Tweedy was hounded by migraines and anxiety attacks when he wrote those albums. (He found out later that he was even allergic to the sun.) At the time, this darkness was obscured by the manner in which the music was created. As beloved as Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot are, they both spawned bootlegs that contain demos which arguably top what was officially released. For Summerteeth, Tweedy was initially petrified by the horrors contained inside songs like “She’s A Jar” and “Via Chicago,” and overcompensated by layering overdubs with the new Jay in his life, Wilco’s troubled multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett.

The constant tinkering continued on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, only Tweedy eventually grew tired of Bennett, who was sent packing before the album’s release. Now, Tweedy’s favored collaborator was Jim O’Rourke, a fixture of Chicago’s noise-rock scene, who helped Tweedy scale back the increasingly convoluted songs. O’Rourke was also an important part of A Ghost is Born, a stunning evocation of an addict’s diseased headspace that registers as both Tweedy’s “rock bottom” moment and his absolute peak as an artist. Released in the aftermath of Tweedy’s rehab stint for painkillers, A Ghost is Born plays like a rebuke to the sentimentalized depiction of substance abuse on those old Uncle Tupelo records. More band members came and went in the process. Wilco would never again seem so ravaged.

In the end, the tortured artist of Wilco lore wasn’t Tweedy, but Jay Bennett, Tweedy’s jilted lieutenant. Unlike Tweedy, Bennett seemed to welcome deification as a f*cked-up genius. In I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Bennett is a Philip Seymour Hoffman character, perpetually exposing his innermost hang-ups even (especially?) when he’s trying to show how much he doesn’t care. Right or wrong, Bennett’s most lasting legacy is starring in the most excruciating scene set inside in a Chicago recording studio in cinematic history.

On the day Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released, Bennett put out The Palace at 4 A.M. (Part 1), an expansive collection of lush power-pop recorded in collaboration with Chicago musician Edward Burch. To this day, there are Wilco fans who insist that the band fell off after Jay Bennett left, and The Palace at 4 A.M. will either dispute or support this notion, depending on your perspective. For me, Bennett was a born sideman — The Palace of 4 A.M. is loaded with wondrous instrumental flourishes in search of better songs.

In 2009, Bennett sued Tweedy for breach of contract relating to his seven-year stint in Wilco. Bennett needed money for a hip replacement surgery that his health insurance wouldn’t cover. Weeks later, Bennett died in his sleep from an overdose of painkillers. He was 45.

Stage 4: Wilco (The Band) (2005-2014)
After spending several years rebelling against traditionalists, Tweedy was faced with a new enemy. Surprisingly, Wilco’s new critics came from the opposite direction, but they were just as rigid in how they defined Wilco’s “proper” sound. It was crystallized in Pitchfork’s review of 2007’s Sky Blue Sky:

An album of unapologetic straightforwardness, Sky Blue Sky nakedly exposes the dad-rock gene Wilco has always carried but courageously attempted to disguise. Never has the band sounded more passive, from the direct and domestic nature of Tweedy’s lyrics, to the soft-rock-plus-solos format (already hinted at on Ghost‘s “At Least That’s What You Said” and “Hell Is Chrome”) that most of its songs adhere to. The lackluster spirit even pervades the song titles: “Shake It Off” is probably most accurate (not to mention the album’s worst track), but “On and On and On” and “Please Be Patient With Me” are both strong alternatives.

I don’t know if this was the first time that Wilco was classified as “dad rock,” but this review surely helped to codify what became the way for critics who were sick of all the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot love to knock Wilco. (To the chagrin of the review’s author, Rob Mitchum, who’s a friend.) From now on, the band’s albums would often be judged by how “experimental” they were. The closer Wilco hewed to the noise and upheaval of its middle period, the better. But whenever Wilco delved into the so-called “soft-rock-plus-solos format,” the dad jokes would immediately commence.

When I interviewed Tweedy a few years ago, he shared a theory about how the first track on any Wilco record ultimately influences the critical narrative. He could’ve been referring to 2011’s The Whole Love, which is as dad-rock-y as any Wilco record, but was widely classified as “adventurous” due in large part to the opening track, a dizzying Krautrock jam called “Art of Almost.” (Putting “art” in the title probably didn’t hurt, either.) Sky Blue Sky, meanwhile, opens with a stately serenity prayer called “Either Way.” Like the rest of Sky Blue Sky, “Either Way” is an expression of humility after a period prolonged psychic crisis. The music is unfettered and open, though the hope for happiness shouldn’t be confused with actual contentment. Sky Blue Sky still feels deeply unsettled beneath all of those guitar solos.

Too many critics misinterpreted the record’s pleas for a calm after the storm as a toothless capitulation to laid-back classicism. To the contrary, Sky Blue Sky posits an uneasy detente with adulthood, with the psychodrama of “She’s a Jar” evolving into a weary promise of “I’ll side with you / if you side with me.”

Coming after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, when the “pro-experimental” faction of Wilco’s fanbase would’ve preferred that they evolve into a heartland Sonic Youth, starting off a record with a song like “Either Way” was more contrariansim from Tweedy. Now, playing in a room as a band — rather than meticulously constructing studio-bound masterpieces — became Tweedy’s M.O.

“Punk rock messed up a lot of sh*t,” he told The A.V. Club in 2007. “As much as I love it and as much as it’s probably the main reason I’m making records today, it really threw out a lot of stuff that wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t such a bad thing to have people working hard at making up songs. It wasn’t all just rock-star excess, and it didn’t all need to be torn down. I understand why punk was seen as a necessity then, but I don’t know why there’s still some sort of idea that musicianship is uncool.”

Stage 5: Cry All Day (2014 to present)
In 2014, I visited the Wilco loft in Chicago to interview Jeff Tweedy for a profile timed with release of Sukierae, a side project by his band, Tweedy, that includes his teenaged son, Spencer. As a Wilco fan, visiting the loft was a special thrill. I thought about all the songs I love that were recorded there, and tried to pick out spots that I remembered from I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.

But speaking to Tweedy in person swiftly swept away such romanticism. Tweedy was friendly and chatty, and we eventually talked for more than two and a half hours. But he was clearly kind of a wreck. Death and sickness had recently intruded upon Tweedy’s life. His older brother, Greg, passed away in 2013. His wife, Sue Miller, was battling cancer. He spoke warmly of his late mother, JoAnn, who died during the Sky Blue Sky sessions. When Spencer showed up for the last part of the interview, Tweedy expressed remorse for being on the road so much during his son’s formative years. I thought Tweedy might burst into tears at any moment, and then I thought I might burst into tears. Fortunately, everybody held it together.

I can’t help but think of this encounter when I listen to 2014’s Star Wars and this year’s Schmilco. To me they sound like PTSD records — numb, strange, broken-down, depressed, occasionally incoherent, and shot through with eccentric gallows humor. Both albums pick up from the insular homeiness of Sukierae — at times, they sound more like privately recorded demos than full-on band records, as if Tweedy played them softly into a tape recorder in the middle of the night as his wife slept, and then decided to release them with minimal polishing.

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In the press materials, Tweedy emphasizes the near-comic crankiness of Schmilco: “I just had a lot of fun being sour about the things that upset me,” he says. To my ears, the fun of Schmilco is primarily musical, particularly the interplay between Tweedy’s voice and guitar and Glenn Kotche’s drums, which is similar to the dynamic Tweedy has with Spencer on Sukierae. Lyrically, however, Schmilco includes some of Tweedy’s most direct expressions of despair: “I’m so confused / I can’t move / I can’t even try” (“Someone to Lose”); “I’m sick of your affliction / But you’re just a smartass and blind” (“Cry All Day”); “When nothing is left, rejoice” (“Shrug and Destroy”); “We aren’t the world / we aren’t the children / I know a good armageddon might have made my day, that day” (“We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)”). And yet Schmilco rarely pauses to dwell on Tweedy’s sorrow — Kotche’s drums lightly propel the songs forward, just as real life has pushed Tweedy out of himself in recent years.

Some critics have commented on how Schmilco feels minor compared with Wilco’s classic work, though I wonder if this is another instance of Tweedy’s zigging when his followers would prefer him to zag. Tweedy once declared that “music is my savior,” a sentiment that any record-collecting obsessive with too many opinions on Wilco LPs can agree with. Wilco albums once had that kind of life-or-death urgency. On Schmilco, the sense of urgency remains, but it’s shifted. Tweedy’s prior investment in making “statement” records often came at the expense of his loved ones. Now, the time has come for other saviors to emerge.

Steven Hyden is Uproxx’s Cultural Critic and the author of Your Favorite Band is Killing Me and an upcoming book on the rise and fall of classic rock. Say hello to him on Twitter.

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