Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lightning Struck Itself

There was no hint in Wilco’s previous releases or members’ former bands and nothing afterwards that would suggest such brilliance; Summerteeth is that very rare concentration of genius over one album, exploiting all of the artists’ creative energies in one spellbinding session.

I can think of only one other band where an album has hit such intense highs that they’re spent for the rest of their career: Television with Marquee Moon, whose title track issues the immortal lines “I remember how the darkness doubled/I recall lightning struck itself”.

Wilco are so beloved of the serious monthly music magazine mafia, it was strange that the tenth anniversary of Summerteeth’s release in March passed without notice. Perhaps, though, its rich mix of 12-string guitar, mellotron and backwards piano is a bit too outré for the classic rock crew, who feel more comfortable with the more traditional country fare for which Wilco are known.

Even so, you’d think the combination of saloon-bar country and bluesy rock’n’roll that recalls Jagger and Richards in the south of France, the fried mourning of Brian Wilson as the sun set on the 1960s, and the post-punk agitation and melodic gift of Elvis Costello would ensure Summerteeth a seat at classic rock’s high table. I can think of no better album from the past ten years.

Every song on Summerteeth opens with lines that the world’s best short-story writers would kill for. It’s worth reproducing all of them here:

• The way things go
You get so low
Struggle to find your skin

• She's a jar
With a heavy lid
My pop quiz kid
A sleepy kisser

• The ashtray says
You were up all night

• Over and over and over again
You say that we’re just friends

• Why I wonder is my heart full of holes
And the feeling goes but my hair keeps growing

• We’ll find a way regardless
To make some sense out of this mess
Well, it's a test, but I believe
A kiss is all we need

• There’s a whisper
I would like to breathe
Into your ear
But I'm too scared
To get that close
To you right now

• How to fight loneliness
Smile all the time
Shine your teeth till meaningless
And sharpen them with lies

• I dreamed about killing you again last night
And it felt alright to me

• I, I should’ve been listening
To every word you said
Oh, what have I been missing
Wishing, wishing that you were dead

• Go back to sleep now, my darling
And I'll keep all the bad dreams away
Breathe now, think sweet things
And I'll think of all the right words to say

• When you wake up feeling old
At this piano filled with souls

• Like a cloud his fingers explode
On the typewriter ribbon, the shadow grows

• Genuine, day will come
When the wind decides to run

• I'm the boy that looks excited
I'm the boy that’s gonna fall apart

By all accounts, Jeff Tweedy was responsible for the lyrics; Jay Bennett wrote much of the music. Legal proceedings have complicated the facts; Bennett’s death this week leaves more questions than it does answers. The biggest question of all is how come Wilco never got even in the suburbs of such mastery of touch, guile and flair after Summerteeth.

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