Wilco’s Summerteeth album turns twenty years old and Getintothis’ Mark Walton explores one of their most pivotal records.
In the spring of 1999 fans of American guitar bands were ready for new heroes for the new century.
REM were starting their slow post-Bill Berry decline, Sonic Youth‘s greatest glories were behind them, Yo La Tengo were only in the foothills of a patient ascent, and The Pixies were long gone; Pavement, The Afghan Whigs and Buffalo Tom either already had or would follow them by year’s end.
So, many hopes were pinned on the third album by Chicago’s Wilco.
Predecessors Uncle Tupelo had, for reasons that baffle as much as they annoy, eluded me at the time – I’m certain I would have fallen in love with their country-punk fusion as much as I had with Husker Du‘s post-hardcore a decade earlier.
Thus my first awareness of Jeff Tweedy‘s new(ish) outfit was a glowing review in The Independent of their second long player, the sprawling, flawed, majestic double-LP masterpiece Being There, in late 1996.
A friend read the same article and together we were lucky enough to see them at Manchester’s Hop & Grape (now Academy 3) in April 1997, a blistering set ending with them tearing through Monday, feet on the monitors like an alt-country Iron Maiden.
Two years later, expectations were high for Summerteeth.
There was a tasty subplot as well, the rivalry, whether real or only imagined by fans and the music press, between Tweedy and his erstwhile Tupelo mucker Jay Farrar. The latter had made a strong headstart with Son Volt‘s debut Trace while Wilco‘s AM felt like it hadn’t totally shaken off the Tupelo sound. Being There, however, put Tweedy leagues ahead. SV‘s third, the excellent Wide Swing Tremolo, came out in autumn 1998. Six months later it was Jeff‘s turn to respond.
But for anyone hoping we’d be getting Being There II – as I imagine I was back in the day – disappointment loomed.
The new release was, if you like, the alt to alt-country. If that record was Wilco as The Rolling Stones then this was The Beatles or maybe The Beach Boys – presaging the American Radiohead of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born‘s melding of Neil Young and Neu!.
Listening again to Summerteeth 20 years later, you’re struck by how much there is going on, both musically and lyrically. This, famously, is the record where Wilco embraced Pro-Tools and overdubbing, and let Jay Bennett loose in the playpen of the studio.
There’s a curiously surreal side to Summerteeth, beginning with the bad joke album title – “I got summer teeth – some are teeth, some aren’t” (mid-Westerners like their teeth references – 15 years later came Teeth Dreams by The Hold Steady) – and its moon/dish/face cover, with hints of Georges Méliès‘ 1902 film A Trip To The Moon.
Then there are Jeff’s lyrics. Yes, Jeff’s lyrics. Writing on the road, that crucible for innumerable songwriters, heavily influenced by totemic American authors like Henry Miller, during a period of emotional turmoil, away from his wife and young son, and dependent on painkillers – did we really expect him to come up with another Casino Queen?
Instead he sings of speaking in code and is by turns abstract, dreamy, childlike, metaphoric, surreal, depressing and often just plain troubling, as in lines like ‘She begs me not to hit her’, probably Wilco’s most infamous lyric, from She’s A Jar and Via Chicago‘s ‘I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me’. Although no-one was meant to take them literally, of course, Jeff himself admitted it was ‘amazing’ he and his wife were still together despite those words.
Summerteeth is a record where form directly opposed content. The darkness of the words is leavened by the beauty of the music, ‘strychnine lyrics sugarcoated by baroque arrangements, poison pop that’s easy to taste but deadly to digest’, as Greg Kot put it in his biography of the band, Wilco: Learning How To Die. Jeff, quoted in the same book, says it was a deliberate ploy: ‘I felt I needed to bury those lyrics safely under glass’.
Given his head in the studio, Jay Bennett didn’t need asking twice and the multi-instrumentalist brought a veritable orchestra of instruments to the party – the album’s Wikipedia entry lists 20 (including vocals) featuring such dictionary botherers as a chamberlin and a tiple. The result, according to often sidelined drummer Ken Coomer,‘really wasn’t a band, just two guys losing their minds in the studio’.
Right from the off on its jaunty opener, the re-recorded Can’t Stand It, Jeff doesn’t sound a happy bunny: ‘The way things go/You get so low/Struggle to find your own skin’. It continues on She’s A Jar (a title I like to think is a nod to Dinosaur Jr’s In A Jar), the dreamy tone complemented by a lovely harmonica befitting lines like ‘a sleepy kisser’ before that difficult ‘she begs me’ payoff.
A Shot In The Arm lifts proceedings markedly. If Summerteeth is to be considered a Jeff and Jay effort, and it was the last record by the Tweedy/Bennett/Stirratt/Coomer line-up, then this is the moment when John Stirratt gets the chance to shine as his bubbly bass runs are the backbone on which the song hangs. ‘Bloodier than blood’ is one of the band’s greatest lines, helping turn this into a Wilco live singalong topped only by Jesus Etc with a closing wig-out tailor-made for future member Nels Cline.
We’re Just Friends, the first of a number of Beatles-esque piano ballads along with Pieholden Suite and When You Wake Up Feeling Old, takes things back down a few notches. Jeff sounds like he’s yearning for someone only to stress that ‘We’re just friends’. He doth protest too much?
There’s a similar contradiction on I’m Always In Love, one of those effortlessly upbeat not-quite-pop-songs Wilco do so well. After another disturbing line, ‘When I let go of your throat’, the narrator reveals he’s worried – because he’s always in love.
Equally contradictory, on the stripped-down How To Fight Loneliness Jeff‘s advice is to ‘smile all the time’, this from a frontman who back then, it’s fair to say, wasn’t always noted for his sunny disposition.
Of all the tracks on Summerteeth Via Chicago is the one that is still played live most regularly, the weight of their back catalogue leaving little room for more than two or three from the album even in the band’s lengthy sets.
It’s arguably the cornerstone of the album and a song I love. Later in 1999 when I actually visited Chicago (where ironically I saw Son Volt in concert) its ‘I’m coming home/via Chicago’ refrain was on repeat in my head. But it requires the listener to grant the same sort of leeway given to Husker Du‘s Diane as Jeff inhabits the character of a murder ballad killer before drifting off into some dreamscape images from a child’s poem.
Unlike subsequent Wilco records, it’s the one time Jeff allows himself to cut loose with a searing guitar solo. You can imagine the Dessner twins, then in the early days of The National, cocking an ear to it.
If any song on Summerteeth reaches back to Wilco’s previous records it’s ELT, proper twanging-guitars, flannel-shirted alt-country with the lyrics offering some kind of antidote to what’s gone before: ‘I didn’t mean to be so disturbing,’ confesses Jeff. Phew, that’s okay then.
It’s followed by My Darling, the most direct, unambiguous number here, surely a love song to his young son. The title track, meanwhile, catchy and upbeat, suggests we shouldn’t take proceedings too seriously with that old ‘it was all a dream’ trope: ‘It’s just a dream he keeps having/And it doesn’t seem to mean anything’.
Summerteeth rather peters out with all the big hitters in the first half of the album. Just how many tracks are there anyway? The CD I bought on release has 17 as does the version on Spotify but the band’s own website lists only 13. Not mentioned are 23 Seconds of Silence (literally), Candyfloss, the mostly overtly poppy number present in which Jeff declares himself ‘the boy with the poetry power’, and In A Future Age which, fittingly, is the track that would most comfortably fit its successor Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, plus an alternative version of She’s A Jar.
In truth, back then I listened far more to Wide Swing Tremolo but, over two decades, the me that was ambivalent about Summerteeth has learned to much admire the record.
What it suffers from most is being sandwiched between the two big beasts in the Wilco jungle, Being There and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (their finest work in this listener’s estimation), but still represents a crucial transition of the sort not seen by them since. Of course, unless they’re AC/DC, variety and progression are what any band worth sticking around for ought to offer their fans, and Summerteeth delivers exactly that.
I’ll readily admit that there’s nothing on Summerteeth that captured my heart the way Outtasite or The Lonely One did on Being There or Heavy Metal Drummer and Reservations would do two years later on YHF. But it can hold its own against any post-A Ghost Is Born release except The Whole Love and it established Jeff Tweedy in the pantheon of great American songwriters with at least two of its songs – Shot and Chicago – contenders for any list of Wilco’s 10 best.
We got what we needed in 1999 – we’d found new heroes and they were coming home, bloodier than blood, via Chicago.
Wilco UK tour 2019 dates:
- September 26 – Barrowlands, Glasgow
- September 27 – Albert Hall, Manchester
- September 28 – Eventim Apollo, London