I can only imagine that at some point in an artist’s life taking yourself and your art so seriously can get pretty heavy. Eventually real life will start to outdo you in the drama department and what you once took so serious doesn’t seem all that important anymore. Health crisis, getting older, losing loved ones sort of takes precedence over writing the great American novel, or in this case the great American song. Jeff Tweedy has dealt with his share of real life drama, and much of it has ended up on his records. A Ghost Is Born was basically anxiety turned to music one song after another. Balancing being a husband and father with living the life of a great American songwriter and touring to pay the bills was pretty much all over Wilco’s first four albums.
After years of struggling with the idea of the artist and their purpose, Jeff Tweedy seems to have found a comfortable place. A place where he is thankful for the things his band and career has allotted him, but is not going to be ruled by his creativity or feel obligated to continue bleeding all over the studio console for our enjoyment. Last year’s surprise Wilco release Star Wars was a fun, brash, and jangly rock and roll record that never felt fussed over or kneaded too long in the kitchen. It had more in common with the Tweedy album Sukierae than it did with The Whole Love. At the time, Tweedy said the songs on Star Wars were decidedly different than the rest of the tunes they’d penned for the album so they decided to release two separate albums. It’s now a year later and we have that other album. It’s called Schmilco, and it is indeed decidedly different than Star Wars. Gone are the rock guitar explosions and jangly fun we heard a year ago. They’ve been replaced with hushed acoustics, lightly brushed drums, and quietly ornamented songs that make for a eerily folksy record filled with Tweedy reminiscing about youth, and maybe not looking back in anger, but definitely disillusionment.
“I remind myself of myself long ago/before I could drive, before I could vote/All of the time, holding a grudge/before I knew people could die just because” Jeff Tweedy sings on the bluesy/breezy album opener “Normal American Kids”. He’s looking back at growing up feeling like an outcast, stoned more than not, hating the idea of having to try and blend in. It’s the most upfront Tweedy has been in years and it’s quite refreshing. From there we drop into the sweet and poppy “If I Ever Was A Child”. This is Wilco in top pop form, but the music hides a somber tone in the lyrics. “I slump behind my brain/A haunted stain will never fade/I hunt for the kind of pain I can take”, Tweedy sings over sweetly strummed acoustics and hushed 3-part harmonies. Soon enough we come to the paranoid squeals of “Common Sense”, a song overwrought with tension and Nels Cline letting loose for the first time with an avante garde free-for-all of notes. “Nope” rattles and shakes with a bluesy swagger not heard out of Wilco since “Dreamer In My Dreams”. “Someone To Lose” feels footloose and fancy free like a band having fun making music together. The closest Wilco has come to a Three Dog Night AM radio hit. Side two rolls in with the slow and sulking “Happiness”, a song in which Tweedy admits, “My mother says I’m great” and “I know the dead still listen/She sings a part of every refrain.”
There’s a beauty in Tweedy’s plainspoken storytelling on this record. There’s not clever wordplay more than there’s authentic reminiscing. To my ears this is one of the most open book records lyrically by Wilco.
“Locator” brings some of last year’s pensive rock and roll groove. The song sounds like a band keeping it all together by a thread, and that’s exciting. The album ends on the one-two-three punch of “Shrug and Destroy”, “We Aren’t The World(Safety Girl)”, and “Just Say Goodbye”. “Shrug and Destroy” has a dreamy vibe as Tweedy sings “I wonder who destroys/when nothing is left, rejoice.” “We Aren’t The World(Safety Girl)” has a Summerteeth vibe, while “Just Say Goodbye” closes Schmilco on a lilting shuffle and a doomed resignation.
Schmilco may not be a great album; at least not an obviously great album. It’s subtle in its musical beauty and quietly orchestrated folk songs. What you may write off as Wilco-lite initially grows and blossoms with repeated listens. There is no great concept here, except maybe revisiting the existential heft of childhood and adolescence. Tweedy seems to have tapped into his inner Holden Caulfield and written a series of songs about growing up and how strange that process can be.
Give this one some time. Your patience will be rewarded.