Posts Tagged ‘John Stirratt’

Wilco - Summerteeth

Summerteeth, released 20 years ago this week, is Wilco’s contribution to a common trope in pop music history: The prettiest songs are often about the ugliest subjects. Summerteeth exists as part of that lineage. It’s the most gorgeously ornate album Wilco ever made, and also the most disturbing.

Tweedy wrote the songs that became Summerteeth at what should have been the happiest time in his life. Rather than sabotaging his music career, the breakup of Uncle Tupelo — his massively influential country-punk partnership with childhood friend Jay Farrar had liberated him to pursue a vision entirely his own. He’d married his longtime girlfriend, Sue Miller, the owner of Chicago music venue Lounge Ax, and together they were raising a young son. The 1996 double-LP Being There had established Wilco as arguably the most talented and ambitious band in alt-country and helped Tweedy escape his reputation as Farrar’s plucky sidekick.

“I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me.” That’s a hell of a way to begin a song, and a hellish way. Just when the sleepy acoustic guitar chords out front of “Via Chicago” have lulled you into a stupor, Jeff Tweedy arrives to announce his shrugging approval toward the prospect of murdering someone he loves.

Eventually the Wilco frontman moves on to increasingly abstract imagery, from “I painted my name on the back of a leaf/ And I watched it float away” to “And crawling is screw faster lash/ I blow it with kisses.” The song builds from those initial chords into a vast soundscape that encapsulates Wilco at their best — that unparalleled ability to pile layers of beauty onto a simple folk song and then artfully rip it to shreds. At climactic moments, Tweedy launches into a slipshod guitar melody like Stephen Malkmus soloing over a disintegrating memory. Following it through to the finish is thrilling, but to get there you have to endure a whole verse of bloody, explosive details. It’s no wonder Tweedy writes in his new memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) that the album containing “Via Chicago” is “the record that’s hardest for my wife to listen to.”

Yet he writes, “I was probably as unhappy as I’d ever been. I was insecure, homesick, and drug-addled.” Even worse, “I had more love in my life that I’d ever had, and I was still lonely.” Furthermore, Tweedy was frustrated that Wilco had been pigeonholed as an alt-country band, a perception reinforced by Mermaid Avenue, a collaborative album with Billy Bragg setting music to unused Woody Guthrie lyrics. Being There had blown open the possibilities of what Wilco could be, but most of the listening public still saw the band a certain way. “People assumed we had this sort of identifiable, philistine range of influences,” Tweedy wrote, “and we, in our heads, knew that wasn’t the case.”

To upend those expectations, Wilco made their idea of a bubblegum record. The rootsy pop-rockers and ballads that populated 1994 debut A.M. were still in the mix, as were the formal and stylistic experiments that made Being There such a leap in terms of breadth and quality. But now Tweedy and his sideman Jay Bennett were building these songs into small-scale symphonies: Beach Boys harmonies spilling into every chorus, waves of gorgeous orchestration surging in and out of the frame. By this point they were more chamber-pop than cowpunk or whatever term the readership of No Depression favored that week.

It was a different record born from a different process. In many ways Summerteeth was a dry run for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and its accompanying saga, be it Tweedy’s embrace of abstract, impressionistic lyrics, the introduction of extensive studio tinkering to tear apart the songs, or tearing apart of the band that came along with it. Drummer Ken Coomer and bassist John Stirratt were largely excluded from the sessions while Tweedy and Bennett popped pills and piled on the overdubs. As Coomer complained to Greg Kot in his Wilco biography Learning How To Die, “There wasn’t really a band, just two guys losing their minds in the studio.”

It’s hard to dispute the results Summerteeth continued a run of masterpieces that began with Being There and continued well into the next decade — but Reprise Records did anyway. That’s another way the album presaged Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: The label asked Wilco to go back and record more accessible music to promote to radio. In this case the band played along, leading to a rare instance of label meddling that worked out really well. The glorious guitar-pop onslaught “Can’t Stand It” is a phenomenal album opener and a frankly underrated entry in the Wilco canon. On the other hand, although you can see why the label didn’t want Summerteeth to begin with the drowsy, depressive, dysfunctional “She’s A Jar,” it’s tough to understand why they couldn’t find a single anywhere else on the tracklist especially when they had one readily available just one track beyond “She’s A Jar.”

On one hand, there’s nothing quite like “A Shot In The Arm” in Wilco’s discography. On the other hand, it’s a great case study for what Wilco were doing on Summerteeth: one of the most beautiful and exhilarating pop songs they’ve ever recorded, and also one of the bleakest. Bennett’s cascading piano ripples, a rock-steady Coomer backbeat, and a Stirratt bass line propel it breathlessly forward while an arsenal of squealing synths collide in the sky like fireworks. All the while, Tweedy alludes to strained relations with his wife and seemingly considers whether a heroin habit might jolt him out of his doldrums. It begins and ends in flicker of synthesizers.

He hints at those tensions again on “Pieholden Suite,” a lush multi-part sequence that really earns that “suite” designation: “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.” And again on “We’re Just Friends,”, If love’s so easy, why’s it hard?” And again on the heartbreaking “How To Fight Loneliness,” a lounge-ready acoustic slow-drift that concludes the best strategy for battling alienation is “just smile all the time.” Punchy rock tracks “I’m Always In Love,” “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again),” and “ELT” course with stress and frustration beneath their cheery veneers. “Can’t Stand It” toggles between strutting Stones-lite verses with a carefree party vibe and a euphoric chorus smothered in keyboards and church bells, yet Tweedy spends the song lashing out at the randomness of both God’s love and his own. Yet again, he evokes a personal life that’s falling apart: “You know it’s all beginning to feel like it’s ending.”

Not everything on the album is so dark. Summerteeth concludes with a stretch of music that feels like a redemption arc. There’s real tenderness in the lullaby “My Darling” and the lazy back porch reverie “When You Wake Up Feeling Old.” The title track finds some kind of resolution as it breezes from snappy twang to sighing rhapsody, though even the apparent reconciliation is oblique enough to keep listeners guessing. And on gentle closing track “In A Future Age,” Tweedy buys into the possibility of change, bookending his album-opening cries that “Your prayers will never be answered again!” with a call to “turn our prayers to outrageous dares.” Yet despite things generally looking up at the end, the album remains a document of Tweedy at one of his lowest moments.

He writes in his memoir that the darkness explored on Summerteeth, while very real, was not autobiographical in the strictest sense. He discusses writing “Via Chicago” and other songs from the era in a fragmented style he compares to mosaic and collage. “When I write in this mode, I write for myself first, pretending that the audience isn’t even there, and will never be there,” he explains. “I can get things off of my chest, I can invent versions of myself that are better than I believe I am … or worse, are even downright awful and murderous. I can expose shadow selves that I believe I should keep my eye on. I can admit things about myself without really having to take ownership of anything.”

In other words, when “She’s A Jar” reaches its twist ending and Tweedy declares, “She begs me not to hit her,” he’s not actually confessing to domestic violence. He’s singing about a fictionalized version of himself, or maybe as a different character entirely, as a way to air out the more disquieting corners of his psyche. Which is not to say it’s wrong to be repulsed by these images or to wish that Tweedy, as the album’s ostensible protagonist, had not verbalized them.

Summerteeth occupies a weird space in Wilco’s history. It stands alone among their output, a product of personal crises and creative friction that would have ended the band if they’d carried on forever. There are people who’ll (wrongly, but earnestly) tell you that actually, this is the best album Wilco ever made. Others see it as the beginning of the end of the band they once loved, a rough draft for future glories. Whatever you make of Summerteeth, I can attest from experience that the album helped Wilco to become for a generation of listeners what the Clash and the Minutemen had been for Tweedy.

09_10_am_01

Wilco’s debut album, A.M., was released 20 years ago .

A.M. is the debut album of Chicago based alt-country rock band Wilco, released on March 28th, 1995. The album was released only months after the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, another alt-country band that was the predecessor of Wilco. Prior to the release of the album, there was debate about whether the album would be better than the debut album of Son Volt, the new band of former Uncle Tupelo lead singer Jay Farrar. Only days after the breakup, Tweedy had decided to form a new group. He was able to retain the lineup of Uncle Tupelo sans Farrar, and rechristened the new band as Wilco.

In mid-May, the band began to rehearse songs in the office of band manager Tony Margherita, and hired producer Brian Paulson, who produced Anodyne. Wilco first recorded demo tracks for the album at Easley studio in Memphis, Tennessee in June. Stirratt recommended the studio based on previous experience as a member of The Hilltops, and Jeff Tweedy had heard of the studio through a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion recording. Reprise Records, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, signed Jeff Tweedy after hearing the tapes, and recording for the album continued through August.

Although A.M. was released before Son Volt’s Trace, critical reviews were modest and initial sales were low. The album was later regarded as a “failure” by band members, as Trace became a greater commercial success. It was the band’s last album to be recorded in a purely alternative country style, as following the record the band began to expand their sound across multiple genres. It is also the only Wilco album to feature Brian Henneman of The Bottle Rockets as a lead guitarist. Recorded June–Autumn in 1994 . Brian Henneman had to leave the band shortly after recording the album, and was replaced by former Titanic Love Affair guitarist Jay Bennett. Jeff Tweedy also attempted to create a more collaborative environment than Uncle Tupelo, requesting songwriting contributions from other members. John Stirratt submitted three songs, hoping to become a secondary songwriter for Wilco. However, although the songs were recorded as demos, only one (“It’s Just That Simple”) was selected to appear on the album, and was the only Stirratt song to appear on any Wilco album.

The album’s title is intended to reference Top 40 radio stations, and the tracks reflect a straightforward country-rock sound. The band members felt that they needed to establish themselves outside of the Tupelo fanbase. However, Tweedy later stated that in actuality, they were “trying to tread some water with a perceived audience.” Tweedy wrote a song about the Uncle Tupelo breakup, but decided that he didn’t want any material on that subject matter to appear on the album (It can be argued, however, that first single “Box Full of Letters”, as well as “Too Far Apart” allude to the dissolution of Farrar and Tweedy’s friendship and working relationship.) Tweedy attributes some of the straightforwardness of the album to his use of marijuana at the time. Shortly after the album, Tweedy stopped smoking pot, to which he credits the introspectiveness of further albums.

Wilco began touring before the album was released. Their live debut was on November 27th , 1994 at Cicero’s Basement Bar in St. Louis, a venue where Uncle Tupelo had first received significant media attention. The band was billed for that concert as Black Shampoo, a reference to a 1970s B-movie, and the show sold out.  Wilco continued to tour for two hundred shows, culminating in show at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas in March 1995. A.M. was released on Reprise Records on March 28th, 1995.

No automatic alt text available.

Few bands have managed to stake out a career as creatively compelling, long-running, and vital as Wilco. Where in their catalog do you start? . For 23 years, Chicago’s Wilco have explored the intricacies and contradictions of American rock’n’roll . Wilco has released ten studio albums, a live double album, and four collaborations: three with Billy Bragg and one with The Minus 5. with a once-in-a-generation songwriter, and a killer live show. It’s not too late to hear what you’ve been missing out on.

While you might have trouble naming some songs, you’ve probably heard of Wilco. It might be because your best friend put them on a mix CD or your guitarist friend can’t stop raving about Nels Cline or maybe you saw some smug comment on Twitter refer to them as “dad-rock” and you wrote them off. If you dismissed them for any one of those reasons or just haven’t gotten to it yet, you’ve been missing out, because few bands have managed to stake out a career as creatively compelling, long-running, and vital as the band Wilco.

09_10_am_01

Now in their 23rd year, the Chicago mainstays have amassed ten albums that constantly tweaked and sometimes reinvented their distinctly Midwestern brand of rock’n’roll. Sometimes they took from roots and Americana (1994’s A.M. and 1996’s Being There), other times they drew inspiration from Jim O’Rourke and Chicago’s vast late ’90s-early aughts experimental scene (2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 2004’s A Ghost Is Born) while elsewhere, they found a solid palate in golden ’70s rock (2007’s Sky Blue Sky). Despite all the dabbling in other sounds, whims, and moods, Wilco have always been consistently themselves thanks to bandleader and frontman Jeff Tweedy’s affecting, humane, and sometimes cryptic songwriting.

Because there’s decades of material packed into ten proper studio albums, not to mention a wealth of live material (2005’s Kicking Television is one of the better live albums since the start of the millennium), a handful of full-length collaborations with UK folk troubadour Billy Bragg, and a treasure’s trove of B-sides, outtakes, and unreleased material in 2014’s box set Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014, it’s a probably intimidating to ask to dive right into Wilco’s catalog without any help. So in honor of Jeff Tweedy’s first solo album Together At Last, a cheekily-titled collection of re-recorded acoustic Wilco cuts as well as selections from his other projects Golden Smog and Loose Fur that’s out now via Anti- Records. 

One thing’s for certain and it’s that most fans will probably have a different answer on which Wilco album to start with: some will argue to just go from the beginning with A.M. and Being There, others will recommend Sam Jones’ revealing 2002 film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart which documents the laborious and obstacle-filled making of breakthrough 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, while certain people will just tell you to listen to the guitar solos on “Impossible Germany.” Wilco’s a very accessible band so all these answers would get you on the right track (on albums alone, I’d say start with Summerteeth or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot).

summerteeth-cover1

But, breaking their discography into distinct sides of the band shows how multi-faceted Wilco have been over almost a quarter of a century. Because they’re a group that still plays their entire discography live (no, seriously, they play near every song at their yearly Chicago “Winterlude” residencies), this obviously isn’t a complete list your favorite song might not be on here. Also, even if you’re not going to figure out what Tweedy meant when he sang “take off your Band-Aid ’cause I don’t believe in touchdowns” on “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” you’ll hopefully consider yourself an “American aquarium drinker” by the end of it.

The earliest Wilco albums— A.M.,Being There and Summerteeth—contain songs that still rank among their most energetic and undeniably infectious.

Wilco formed in 1994 out of the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, the still-influential but long-defunct Belleville, Illinois alt-country band Tweedy started with songwriter Jay Farrar (who went on to front Son Volt) and drummer Mike Heidorn. Other Tupelo members like bassist John Stirratt, latter-day drummer Ken Coomer, and guitarist Max Johnston joined Wilco while Heidorn reunited with Farrar for Son Volt’s first album Trace. Wilco’s A.M. rollicked with a countryfied stomp, songs like “I Must Be High,” “Casino Queen,” and “Box Full of Letters” standing out. But it wasn’t until Wilco’s sophomore double album Being There that the twangy rockers they were churning out really began to pop: “Monday,” “I Got You (At The End of the Century,” and “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” are still fierce and fantastic.

09_10_foxtrot_01

While Wilco would trade much of gritty, rough-hewn twang for synths and Beatles-indebted pop exuberance on their third album Summerteeth, the energy from their earlier oeuvre never left. Where the bubblegum melodies of “I’m Always In Love” and “Candyfloss” anchored Summerteeth, Tweedy’s ear for a good hook kept going: few things are catchier than “Kamera” off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or the underrated “The Late Greats” off A Ghost Is Born. We could keep going on and on to Star Wars and Schmilco too.

09_10_ghostborn_01

Wilco can do the overdriven as well as any American rock band, often times the highest points of the band’s catalog are found in the quieter moments. “Misunderstood,” the first song off Being There, is probably one of the best encapsulations of the inclusive and relatable nature of Wilco’s songs. Tweedy’s opening lines, “When you’re back in your old neighborhood/The cigarettes taste so good/But you’re so misunderstood” couldn’t be a better outcast calling card. Elsewhere, on another Being There highlight like the cathartic “Sunken Treasure” he earnestly sings, “Music is my savior, and I was maimed by rock and roll” and it undeniably works.

Throughout Wilco’s albums, the softer songs have always been the emotional centerpieces from “Via Chicago” or “How To Fight Loneliness” on Summerteeth and “Ashes of American Flags” on Yankee Hotel Foxtrotto just name a couple. Live, no Wilco set would feel complete to certain fans without the the Billy Bragg collaboration “California Stars” to close the set or the inclusion of one of the two most subtle stunners on A Ghost Is Born: “Company In My Back” or “Muzzle of Bees.”

09_10_skybluesky_01

The tumultuous recording process surrounding Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has long been Wilco mythology: the label drama, the conflict between then-member Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy, how the band pioneered streaming culture by putting the album on their website months-in-advance, etc. But perhaps the most important factor into the album was largely not focused on in Sam Jones’ excellent documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart and that’s Chicago experimental mainstay and Loose Fur cofounder Jim O’Rourke, who ended up mixing and changing the whole direction of the project. Thanks to O’Rourke as well as Wilco’s new drummer Glenn Kotche (also a member of Loose Fur and an local experimental music veteran), the songs became deconstructed, a little weirder, and a little wonkier. O’Rourke would go on to co-produce Wilco’s next album “A Ghost Is Born,” which darkly expands and deconstructs even more the studio experiments and successes from Foxtrot. It’s the most brooding Wilco album and a lot of Wilco fans will say it’s their best.

While that album’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious songs Wilco have drawn up, with its 10 plus-minutes of a cathartic, Krautrock-freakout, the band continued to keep that adventurous spirit alive in their later albums. “Bull Black Nova” off Wilco (The Album) accomplishes this with smoldering guitars but perhaps the best encapsulation comes from “Art of Almost,” the bonkers opener from 2011’s The Whole Love. Jeff Tweedy explained that song last year, “‘Art of Almost’ is this strange combination of all the different members putting their mark on something and having it still somehow hold up and be a thing. Live, it just gets kind of more and more intense.”

09_10_wilco_01

On the 2007 press cycle for Sky Blue Sky, Wilco’s sixth album, Jeff Tweedy talked with the Wall Street Journal about his favorite albums from the ’70s citing Wings, Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, and the Clash. In previous interviews, he’s also mentioned his love for Television’s Marquee Moon, T. Rex’s Beard of Stars, and Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. You can find traces of each throughout Wilco’s discography but it was on Sky Blue Sky, the first studio album with the current Wilco lineup (adding guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone), that was their sunniest, most ’70s-inspired effort yet. While not as frenetic as the twang rockers from their early catalog, these tracks like “Handshake Drugs” and “Impossible Germany” are just as compelling even though they unfold in a much more relaxed way. These kind of Wilco songs with warm guitars and lush arrangements are found throughout their 10 albums, with songs like “The Whole Love,” “Hummingbird,” and “Dawned On Me” rounding it out.

Wilco’s latest offerings, 2015’s Star Wars and 2016’s Schmilco, not just in their goofball titles alone were as close a sonic equivalent to Jeff Tweedy’s stage banter as you can get: irreverent and to-the-point. They dropped Stars Wars without warning releasing it for free on their website and its album cover was a painting of a cat that hangs in the kitchen of the band’s Northwest Chicago studio The Loft. 

Compared to the rest of Wilco’s discography, these two albums are slightly off-kilter (a curveball blast of dissonant noise called “EKG” kicks off Star Wars), but there’s an energy that channels the reckless nature of their beginnings. Star Wars highlight “Random Name Generator” exudes some T. Rex-indebted swagger while the wonky “Common Sense” boasts perhaps the most subtly challenging arrangement of Wilco’s catalog, showing a band still able to change it up. But most importantly, the current iteration of the band has been locked in for a over a decade. There’s an effortlessness and fun to these new songs that were hinted at during some of the band’s highlights like Foxtrot cut “Heavy Metal Drummer” and the suburban sad-sack rocker “Hate It Here” off Sky Blue Sky.While the band’s come a long way from the cigarette-tinged twang that coloured A.M., the Wilco of 2017 shows no signs of letting things get stale.

 

Wilco will reissue their first two albums, A.Mand Being There, on December 1st via Rhino. The new editions will feature an array of bonus tracks, including alternate takes, unreleased songs and live recordings. A live rendition of the band’s gritty and lonesome A.M. track, “Passenger Side,” recorded in Los Angeles in 1996

The deluxe editions of both albums will be released on CD and double LP, while Being There will be released as a five-CD collection or a four LP set. Digital versions of both albums will be available, while limited-edition color vinyl copies can be purchased on the Wilco website.

Following the dissolution of their previous band, Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer helped form Wilco and released their debut album, A.M. in 1995. The new reissue will feature eight unreleased bonus tracks, including an early version of “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” and Uncle Tupelo’s last studio recording, “When You Find Trouble.”

http://

Stirratt wrote new liner notes for the reissue as well, and in them, he says of A.M., “Listening back to records 15 to 20 years later, I’m always taken with the confident but guileless quality of bands in their 20s, that strange mixture of innocence and conviction, and this is one of those records – we were barely a band at that point, just trying to make some noise.”

Wilco released Being There, a double album, in 1996. The expanded edition of that record includes a full disc of outtakes, alternate versions and demos, plus a 20-song live set recorded at the Troubadour in Los Angeles November 12th, 1996, and a four-song set recorded the following day at the Santa Monica radio station KCRW.

A.M. includes original album + 8 previously unreleased outtakes and liner notes by John Stirratt.

Being There includes original double album + 15 previously unreleased songs and demos plus a live performance at KCRW (11/13/96). CD/Digital version also includes Wilco live gig from The Troubadour (11/12/96).

Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, text

For over 20 years, Chicago Americana troupe Wilco has been a band of depth and intricacy. Singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy has served up his personal insights on the mic as a revolving backing band of ace multi-instrumentalists dressed them in the Alt-country repose of A.M. and Being There, the ‘70s pop sheen of Summerteeth, and the minor symphonies of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. By 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, the band settled on what would be its first stable lineup: Jeff Tweedy and his former Uncle Tupelo bassist buddy John Stirratt, experimental drummer and percussionist Glenn Kotche, guitar god Nels Cline, knob twiddler Mikael Jorgensen, and alt-country session hand Pat Sansone. The lineup honored Wilco’s commitment both to country and to pushing the envelope of this genre, but 2009’s Wilco (The Album) and 2011’s The Whole Love, the pair of full lengths that followed Sky Blue Sky, maybe fizzed when they ought to have popped.

Last summer’s surprise free release Star Wars was an attempt to redirect the band’s energy. At just over 33 minutes long, it’s the shortest Wilco studio album.

The songs were two- and three-minute pop-rock confections that pulled off the difficult feat of sounding both thoughtfully arranged and off the cuff. This month’s Schmilco seeks to extend the streak, revisiting the wiry energy of Star Wars over a dozen quiet acoustic tunes. Most of the new album’s songs were conceived around the same time as Star Wars, but Tweedy made the peculiar decision to split the fertile sessions in two: “The alternative to making two records would have been to spend another year really honing everything, all of it, getting it all right for that kind of release.”

The irony of the Star Wars/Schmilco project is that the decision not to whittle everything down to a single body of work is its saving grace.

If the major strength of Star Wars was getting Wilco, a band whose finest albums are also their busiest, to strip down, Schmilco’s is figuring out how to stash six players into the quiet of a backyard jam. “Normal American Kids,” introduced at a live show earlier this year as a solo Jeff Tweedy cut, gets a studio version that sneaks sweet, meandering electric guitar from Nels into the background. A few songs later “Nope” crams stuttering bits of riffs into the margins, the lead guitar coughing and spitting over the tune like Blur ax-man Graham Coxon did on “Coffee & TV.” “Nope” slowly unravels as it trips along, its personnel expanding to no less than three guitarists and two drummers. (Tweedy’s son Spencer lends Kotche a hand on Schmilco’s drums.) Between these extremes is a tapestry of shaggy guitar shuffles like the laconic “Happiness,” the demented, atonal “Common Sense,” and the muted punk blast of “Locator.”

Schmilco’s subtle intricacies provide cover for a series of vignettes of dreamers in various degrees of resignation. From the song titles — “Nope,” “Cry All Day,” “Someone to Lose,” “Shrug and Destroy” — down to the lyrics, Schmilco bleeds sadness. The deceptively titled “Happiness” opens on a devastating observation: “My mother always says I’m great, and it always makes me sad / I don’t think she’s being nice, I really think she believes that.” Album closer “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl)” devilishly subverts the chorus of the star-studded ‘80s charity single “We Are the World” into a dart about settling: “We aren’t the world / We aren’t the children / But you’re my safety girl.” As a lyricist, Tweedy loves his abstractions. (“I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue”?) So Schmilco’s snap focus on dejected character studies, like the hopeless barfly of “Quarters,” who sweeps the place for quarters to play music on the jukebox, is jarring, but like the elegant arrangements that swirl and sputter underfoot, it feels like the work of a tightly wound unit taking chances. Wilco’s willingness to embrace risk and change at a point in its career where peers often retreat into comfort and self-parody suggests there could be another couple of decades of life left in this 22-year-old enterprise.

Despite playing the game for over two decades, the 49-year-old singer-songwriter has hardly ever sounded so intimate as he does on Schmilco, grappling with the never-ending angst of knowing that you never really can escape yourself. On album standout “If I Ever Was a Child”, he vividly paints this feeling, singing: “I slump behind my brain/ A haunted stain never fades/ I hunt for the kind of pain I can take.” The Chicago rockers add some color to each of the album’s 12 tracks by stripping things down to its core essentials.