Jeff Tweedy never seemed especially interested in being the savior of Americana.
Jeff Tweedy never seemed especially interested in being the savior of Americana. The arrival of an acoustic set on which he works through tunes originally recorded by Golden Smog, Loose Fur and his main squeeze, Wilco, doesn’t change any of that. It’s no secret that his interests have long run to the weird: Even as a young artist in Illinois, he was guilty of seeking out records by art rockers such as Can and Faust. The more abstract convictions of those outfits have long been apparent in his writing. What this set does is highlight how he adapted those influences seamlessly into a style of music synonymous with the plain, the almost artless. Almost, of course, because Tweedy recognized that American primitive sounds are just one or two steps from the move of Krautrock: they’re focused on hypnotic rhythms and transcendental melodies.
His songs aren’t built solely on those elements, but both his inform his writing, especially the further he’s traveled from his days in Uncle Tupelo. Set aside all the highfalutin genre checking for a second and what it amounts to is this: Tweedy remains one of our most singular songwriters, capable of new metaphors and expressions of emotion that transcend our expectations on a consistent basis.
Hearing a stripped-down rendition of “Via Chicago” doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: we’ve committed those lyrics to memory, quaked each time at the audacity of singing about dreams of killing (in a first line no less), what we may not have done is marveled at the nakedness of it all. Most often, he’s said what he’s had to say without apology, whether singing about handshake drugs or girls who fall in love with heavy metal drummers. He can be smart-assed sometimes (most great artists can) but he never takes that out on his audience. When he does it it’s not a coastal condescension but instead a kind of Midwestern avuncular that permeate the region’s particular humor.
“Muzzle of Bees” and “Ashes of American Flags” aren’t given definitive readings here, nor are they given entirely new life. This isn’t the difference between Clapton performing “Layla” as the erek in Derek and the Eric in Clapton, it’s the difference between “All Apologies” as it appeared on In Utero and Unplugged. You love both, even if they’re relatively the same. Having old favorites (“Laminated Cat,” “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”) given up to us in that scant distance is refreshing and worthy of celebration because, well, they’re Tweedy.
All that said, “In a Future Age” (originally from Summerteeth) sounds more gorgeous than ever and brims with new vitality and unexpected spontaneity; “Hummingbird” crackles with a similar newness, a sparer, more exhilarating take than A Ghost Is Born. The closing “Sky Blue Sky” asks to consider what else the songwriter might do with some of his past output in this setting.
There is talk that there will be future installments in this series and one thinks that there’s great potential for what Tweedy might get up to with such recordings. He’s dodging the greatest hits route, once more taking the less obvious route and remaining true to his particular vision. He’s done that for a long, long time now and as fans we have to be thankful for that impulse, one that some seem reluctant/afraid to embrace.
We’re also given some hope as to what the future might bring for Wilco. Maybe, this collection whispers, the best stuff is still yet to be written so long as it’s all coming through the hands of a man thoroughly independent and reluctant to cleave to safety.