By Nick Burns
Jeff Tweedy doesn’t seem to care much about the critics anymore. This much was made clear on last year’s Wilco release, the chilled-out yet juddering “Star Wars,” which featured a kitschy cover and was released suddenly — and gratis — on the Wilco website. Intentionally throwing sour notes into the stew of songs like “Random Name Generator,” Tweedy’s band sounded like they were just messing around, and yet you had to admit: it sounded pretty good.
At first, this year’s Wilco release, dubbed “Schmilco,” seems more or less a sequel. Material for it was drawn from the same set of recording sessions as its predecessor, and the album retains some of “Star Wars’’’ overall character. Similar is the jolting, meowing guitar, as well as the attitude of lazy cool — on show with “Schmilco”’s self-dismissive title and bizarre, blackly funny album artwork (courtesy of Catalan surrealist cartoonist Joan Cornellà), which features a girl’s father electrocuting himself attempting to plug in her record player. The current races through his body, with seemingly fatal consequences, but when it reaches the record player, the music begins to play and the man’s daughter, unawares, smiles and begins to dance. This image of ridiculous suffering, and of others’ ignorance of it, is an early tip-off that “Schmilco”’s mood will be different, and darker.
“Schmilco” is softer than “Star Wars,” perhaps easier on the ears; certainly more acoustic. The album’s first track begins with a circular riff like the quiet oscillations of a radio playing static. Tweedy looks back on a childhood spent hiding in fear and jealousy from the eponymous “Normal American Kids,” feeling as though in his middle age — Tweedy’s 50 next year — he is, if anything, returning to form (“I remind myself of myself long ago”). The single change he notes in himself is that the song’s resentful boy hiding behind the shed is a Tweedy “before I knew people could die just because.” It’s been suggested this refers to former Wilco bandmate Jay Bennett of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” fame (that is, the acclaimed 2002 documentary of the making of Wilco’s modern classic, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”), who was dismissed from the band after the release of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and died prematurely in 2009 of a prescription drug overdose. It could conceivably also be a reference to Tweedy’s wife’s cancer, from which she recovered but which had a profound effect on Tweedy’s life and art.
“Bongs and jams and carpeted vans / I hate everything I don’t understand,” Tweedy sings towards the end of “Normal American Kids,” indicting the material and the noise of American culture and his own impending old-fogeyness in a single sentence. The sentiment is relatable, even if it’s sometimes unclear whether his criticism is of 70s America or America in 2016 — perhaps both, but then, ‘carpeted vans’ is a less powerful condemnation of contemporary America than it might’ve been in 1979.
“If I Ever Was a Child” is more plea, more prayer than the half-smiling cynicism of “Normal American Kids.” “Can my cold heart change / even out of spite?” Tweedy wonders, as if straining to imagine a different self than the boy from the previous song. Moving nearer the album’s core, there are a few more scattered, jerky songs that seem to have more “Star Wars” in them than the rest of the album. “Quarters,” however, is a standout track, featuring acoustic guitar reminiscent of the “Sky Blue Sky” – era “Either Way” but with more contemporary-Wilcoian ambient weirdness, with compact, intermittent Morse code drums; and almost William Carlos Williams–esque lyrics: a short, understated, but powerful depiction of a boy (Tweedy?) in the bar where his grandmother works. Surrounded by sordidness, forced to do manual work, the boy finds solace in the music of the jukebox.
“Locator,” a paranoid, throbbing satirical paean to Big Brother, is arguably the closest thing to a hit on this consciously radio-unfriendly album (though radio stations have inexplicably been playing “Shrug and Destroy,” if anything). “We Aren’t the World (Safety Girl),” another conscious shot at American pop culture (cf. the 1985 charity single “We Are the World” featuring Michael Jackson), is Tweedy at his dorkiest, an imagined conversation between two lovers who think they’re hilarious together incorporating repeated questions of “Is that so?” like a mockup of an Austen novel. The album finishes out with “Just Say Goodbye,” a song whose derivative title and chorus is made up for in large measure by Tweedy’s tortured, palms-up surrender (to a lover, to a child?) as he sings, “We try so hard / As if I have answers,” in time to a final bass progression and one last bell-like note.
The album succeeds most when it deviates from “Star Wars” and shows Tweedy struggling with — or embracing — old, cold, misanthropic tendencies from his youth, as he slings vintage vitriol on the people he sees or the people he knew; but also when he goes digging for a way to change, even when the result is that nobody has easy solutions.
Contact Nick Burns at njburns ‘at’ stanford.edu.