Wilco is a multi-genre band hailing from the heart of Chicago. It has consistently made some of the most groundbreaking, experimental, and genre-bending music the world has ever seen. Starting out as an alt-country band, its first two albums “A.M.” (1995) and Being There (1996) became underground sensation. However, once the band drifted to a more experimental sound, its music became something more unique than the next country rock band. The 1999 album “Summerteeth” is no exception.
Singer/songwriter of Wilco, Jeff Tweedy, conducted an interview with UTNE Reader in 1999 about “Summerteeth.” “I can imagine that some people will be turned off by the darkness of some lyrics,” Tweedy remarks. “I can also imagine that some people will understand that it’s not meant to be dark. The outlook of the record is hopeful.” With this outlook of optimism and despair, the bloated (but ambitious) “Summerteeth” album was born.
I’m not gonna lie, I have been listening to this album non-stop since I’ve been a Wilco fan (starting about when I was 3 years old ). Almost every track holds this cryptic meaning that makes me want to dig deeper into what it all adds up to.
The album reached moderate success with songs like “I’m Always in Love”, “Can’t Stand It”, and “A Shot in the Arm.” These were all fantastic tracks that would eventually become fan favorites, as well as live show staples for the band.
On the other hand, a flaw in this album is that it is far too long for its own good. If Tweedy and Co. had cut down on a few tracks, this would have been a perfect album. For now, we do have to deal with a few filler tracks here and there.
Due to the large length of the album, I won’t be doing a track-by-track review this time around. This review will be covering the more general aspects of the album, while also highlighting several high and low points.
The lyrics of this album is quite possibly the best aspect of the album. Every line Tweedy wrote for each song is brilliantly ambiguous and disturbing. This even applies to the weaker tracks of the album!
The songs “She’s a Jar” and “Via Chicago” are excellent showcaseings for this chilling ambiguity. For example, in “She’s a Jar,” the song ends with a lyric that sends chills to the bone. “You know she begs me not to hit her,” Tweedy sings. This pseudo-domestic abuse line at the tail end always makes me rethink what the song is actually about. Does the protagonist of the song’s story actually hurt his girlfriend, or has the girlfriend experienced a dark past of abuse? She could be begging that this new love will treat her well, unlike her past.
On the other hand, “Via Chicago” opens up with some very graphic imagery that seeps into the listener’s mind. “I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me. Dying on the banks of Embarcadero skies, I sat and watched you bleed,” Tweedy remarks. These opening lyrics, although disturbing, are more figurative. Tweedy is basically describing how he wants to forget about a failed relationship by metaphorically killing his ex. This might seem like a cop-out to a great murder mystery song, but I say that it is a great way to get the listener’s attention.
On another note (no pun intended), Jay Bennett, Wilco’s recently deceased keyboard player, really got to show off his creativity in every song on this album. He uses almost every sound he can think of to make each song distinct and unique. In the closing track “Candyfloss”, Wilco really gets to show off their influences, The Beatles and The Beach Boys.
While listening to “Candyfloss,” I invite you to close your eyes and imagine you are sitting on a beach in 1966. The song is playing on your stereo next to you as you soak up the sun. You really feel like you are there, because this track is an unbelievably accurate great homage to 60’s pop-rock. To be honest, this couldn’t have been accomplished without Bennett’s staccato and harpsichord piano tones.
All in all, when this album is at its best, it is unstoppable. The level of creativity used on the best songs is just astounding. This however, doesn’t save this album from some of its worst moments
Again, this album is incredibly lengthy. In other words, there are a few filler tracks that keep this album from being a masterpiece. For example, the songs “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again)” and “In A Future Age” both have the same problems as each other. They both hold very empty production and feel as if little effort was really put into them.
“Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again)” is a basic, annoying, and flat out boring pop-rock tune that does nothing interesting with the instrumentation or lyrics. The repeated phrases in the chorus make me want to scream at my speakers out of annoyance. It is not a bad song, but one that I will probably skip every time if it turns up on my shuffle.
“In A Future Age” is this long and droning tune that never fails to put me to sleep. It feels empty, as if Wilco forgot to put in a few instruments. Although, people are gonna start asking why I love songs like “We’re Just Friends” and “Pieholden Suite”, because those songs have similar tempos. These two tracks, however, have dynamics and interesting use of instruments, with fantastic production to top it all off. But when listening to “In A Future Age”, all I can hear is this slow, mess of a Wilco song that could have been much more.
Although, the most insulting thing Wilco does on this album is the song “23 Seconds Of Silence”, as it is literally just 23 seconds of silence. I don’t know if it is a joke or an ambitious artistic statement the band is trying to make. What I do know is that this track ruins the flow of the album, and also makes me think my speaker or headphones disconnected. All in all, it is a waste of space that does nothing but put the listener in an uncomfortable spot.
Neil Lieberman, a writer at Pitchfork, reviewed “Summerteeth” with unbelievable acclaim (he gave it a 9.4/10). “With “Summerteeth, delivered on both counts, crafting an album as wonderfully ambiguous and beautifully uncertain as life itself,” Neil writes. I agree with this statement wholeheartedly, as this has become a personal favorite of mine because of these reasons. The ambiguity and moral questioning the album provides is something to behold. It raises questions on how the listener would want his or her life to turn out. Will it be as dreadful as the characters in these songs, or are you gonna do something about it to avoid these tragic situations?
Everything from the lyrics and their ambiguity and the very creative use of sounds really make this album worth a listen to anybody. However, be prepared to listen to some filler as a sacrifice to find the brilliance of this album. All in all, be prepared to be amazed, as well as frustrated.