Gray skies gone blue

May 13, 2007


For all his talk about being happy, Jeff Tweedy doesn't smile much, Sun-Times photographer Keith Hale noted after a recent visit to the loft that the Chicago band Wilco maintains as a rehearsal space and recording studio on the Northwest side.

Only once during a two-hour interview and photo session did the singer and songwriter break into a full-fledged grin, when he sat surrounded by a dozen guitars and talked about buying a new Studer 24-track, reel-to-reel recorder, one of the last the company sold before yielding to digital technology.

It was revealing, because if the 39-year-old musician finds happiness in anything besides his family, it's the mechanics of recording music. And Wilco has just had what he calls "the most gratifying experience we ever had making a record," crafting the group's sixth proper album "Sky Blue Sky" at home in its loft over the course of several two-week sessions spent sitting in a circle capturing the live sounds of six musicians playing together in the moment.

"Going into the studio, on every record, Wilco has pulled behind us an enormous amount of baggage," Tweedy says with a sigh. "Especially for each new lineup, and each record has been a new lineup. It's a real collective thing for all of us to overcome -- what kind of perception there is and what kind of expectations there are. I think that this is the least self-conscious record we've ever made, and I'm really proud of that. We sat down and made music that we like to hear."

Tweedy has followed a famously long and twisted path to arrive at this point. After forming Wilco in 1994 after the end of cult favorites Uncle Tupelo (one of the pioneering bands in the alternative-country movement), the Belleville, Ill., native continued mining similar sounds on his new band's first two releases, "A.M." (1995) and "Being There" (1996). Then he began to mix things up, crafting the gorgeous orchestral-pop effort "Summerteeth" (1999) and the fractured but beautiful art-rock albums "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (2002) and "A Ghost is Born" (2004).

Along the way, band members came and went amid considerable acrimony; the group split with Reprise Records, and then released the music that label deemed "noncommercial" for free on the Internet. Tweedy's faith in these daring new sounds was rewarded when "Foxtrot" and "Ghost" debuted in the Top 10, and Wilco became a reliable draw on the concert circuit, regularly selling out mid-size theaters. But the bandleader, who is plagued by devastating migraines, also developed an addiction to prescription painkillers, and just as the last album was released, he checked into rehab.

Inevitably, Tweedy's recovery became a bigger story than the album or the fiery stage shows that followed during more than two years of touring. "I don't regret that it was a part of the story: I didn't make the world the way it is, and the world seems fascinated with that story, no matter how many times it gets told," he says now. "Part of my recovery was that it was probably not a bad thing to be able to discuss it with people -- it's actually one of the things that you kind of have to do to keep moving forward. But I don't need to do it as much now."

'Where's the noise?'
Always deliberate and thoughtful, the artist has never been an effusive interview, but these days, he's not only reticent but downright defensive.

"I probably am more uncomfortable now talking to the press than I've ever been," he admits. "For many, many years, the side of my life that was going the best was always the musical side -- the side of my life that was able to make records and get them out and then talk about them. Talking to the press was an opportunity to stay in the part of my life that was going well; it was a distraction, and I really don't require that distraction nearly as much these days. I'd rather be making music or watching my son learn how to skateboard.

"Also, I think that with this record in particular, there was such an effort to communicate directly that I honestly thought that that was more vulnerable-feeling and scary than stringing together a bunch of sort of asymmetrical images and impressionistic ideas and conceptualizing. And I'm seeing that that's true. ... Early on, it honestly felt like this was the bravest record to make, and I have been vindicated in that thought, because it certainly seems to have upset the most people. I've been doing a lot of interviews and talking to people, and I hear all the same questions that I've heard for the last eight years, but rephrased to be 'Where is the noise?' While all the time we were making noise, it was 'Where is the pedal steel?' "

Tweedy is referring to early reviews of "Sky Blue Sky," which arrives in stores Tuesday but has been streaming on the Web for weeks, prompting the inevitable debates on the Net. The shorthand take is that Wilco has returned to the alt-country and folk-rock sounds that were increasingly missing on the last three discs, but it's done so in a quieter and more introspective manner than ever. It's the group's "Basement Tapes," if you will, and while the band's leader grants that listeners may have expected harder or more ambitious sounds -- given that the current lineup of bassist John Stirrat, drummer Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen and avant-jazz guitarist Nels Cline is the heaviest of Wilco's career -- he insists there was never a deliberate plan to craft a gentler, rootsier, less challenging disc.

"We didn't try to be introspective; we just sat in a circle. We did record a lot of rock music, and this is just the record that sounded the best to us. There is noise on this record -- I think it just all fits together a lot more pleasantly, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

"It really doesn't take a lot of introspection to think that because Nels Cline is in the band, people are going to be expecting this, or that just because Glenn put out this type of music recently [last year's avant-garde percussion disc "Mobile"], people will be expecting that. Because of our connection with Jim O'Rourke [who produced the last two records], people will be expecting this; and because of John and Pat's side project [the alt-country/ork-pop group the Autumn Defense], people might be expecting that. And I think we really successfully ignored all of that."

Planning vs. doing
If there is one thing that fans could expect from Tweedy over the last eight years, it's that he would probably zig when he seemed mostly likely to zag. "I don't think that's a bad thing," he says. "There are certainly not very many groups that over a long period of time have been able to embrace ambiguity -- ambiguity in the sense that we've never really bothered to define ourselves to ourselves. I think that there's been a really loose principle or barely coherent philosophy behind it; there certainly is a thread through everything. But I don't think we've ever labored over anything beyond that, other than just making the records."

Yet given the dramatic stylistic departures of the last three albums from Wilco's first two discs or Uncle Tupelo, it's a little hard to believe Tweedy never had a sonic blueprint in mind for those releases or for "Sky Blue Sky," and probing that issue prompted the most contentious exchange during our interview.

Q. Are you really saying you had no sonic goal for this album, Jeff?

A. I've never had a goal in mind sonically. I don't really care about sonics that much.

Q. But when I interviewed you for both of the last two albums, we talked an awful lot about the sound. Clearly, one emerged in the studio.

A. Well, yeah. I think that that's the faith you have to have. But I'm much more concerned with the bigger patterns of it -- whether or not the lyrics feel like they are making any sense, and whether or not the music as a whole is saying something.

Q. And the songs on "Sky Blue Sky" are both more uniformly upbeat lyrically and much more of a piece musically?

A. Well, yeah. I think that from start to finish, even key-wise, the way the record is arranged feels more like one piece of music -- it feels like a program of music. That emerged as we were recording, and we talked about that. But mostly we talked about whatever song we were working on that day, and I think that we had faith that the process we were using would allow a certain amount of cohesiveness that we've never really had. We've never been able to maintain a process throughout a record. 'A Ghost is Born' is the closest we've ever come, but things were more fractious between the band members ... It was just more dysfunctional, and I was more dysfunctional, for sure.

Q. People are going to say this album is about retrenching ...

A. Does that mean you're going to say that? That's like a Fox News thing: "Some people say ..."

Q. [Laughs] It's already been printed in a lot of reviews.

A. Fine. What do I care? People are saying something about our music either way. What good would it do me to sweat that?

Q. I'm just trying to understand if there were other arrangements -- with a "Foxtrot" or "Summerteeth" sound, say -- for some of these new songs, or if this was just the way these tunes had to sound.

A. Well, I have trouble finding out what people mean when they make generalizations like that. Certainly we could not have done "Impossible Germany" on the last four records, because we tried. That song has actually been around for a long time, and it didn't work -- it didn't click as anything. We tried it, and this is the way that we were able to perform it. I can understand that someone who's listened to a song like "Sky Blue Sky" can hear it as being somehow similar to something on an earlier Wilco record. So? Who cares? Some people make the same record over and over and over their entire career. I can guarantee you you'll never find anywhere where I've said, "We've consciously turned our back on what we used to sound like."

Q. I don't know, Jeff: You put a 15-minute experimental sound collage ["Less Than You Think"] as the penultimate track on "Ghost." That was sort of like saying, "Take this, you "Casino Queen" fans!

A. If it was as long as it was originally, maybe: It was a half-hour long to begin with, and it was going to be an entire side. But my point is that when people use the term "experimental" -- and they use it over and over, and I'm talking about people of your profession -- there's very, very rarely anything that's really experimental about those records. Now, are there things that are outside the mainstream? Sure. Are there things that aren't normally associated with that type of music? Sure. Is it experimental or exploratory of the band to pursue those elements? Possibly. But is it really experimental? No.

I'm not saying that ["Ghost" or "Foxtrot"] were crass commercial endeavors, but it was what I thought pop music sounded like. Every record has been that, even this record. By today's standards, pop music used to be the height of experimentalism: It was ambiguous. Rock music was still like this idea that it could be anything, and it's narrowed a lot, obviously. But even limiting that vocabulary, it's still pretty infinite the things that are available to you.

Tolerating ambiguity
Fair enough: An artist should always be free to follow his muse wherever it takes him. On "Sky Blue Sky," Wilco has huddled in its loft, looking inward and gently reflecting rather than giving us another wild upheaval. And whether fans love it or hate it, it's further evidence on a music scene dominated by 15-minute wonders that Tweedy is a career artist of the sort that hasn't been heard since other ever-evolving and sometimes befuddling greats such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan. If you doubt it, just look at the current cover of Spin -- where Tweedy appears in a Vanity Fair-like spread with fellow summer concert giants Perry Farrell, Tom Morello, AFI's Davey Havok,Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and Spoon's Britt Daniel -- and realize that he's already explored more varied, inventive and consistently rewarding sounds than all of them combined.

"I think it's a sign of superior mental health," Tweedy says, laughing for the only time during our chat. "I'm joking, but that's what I was talking about -- that's tolerating ambiguity, that's tolerating this idea that life is too short to narrow it down. I understand the reason people don't want to tolerate ambiguity, because it's a struggle: It can be very scary. But it can also be very invigorating."

Wilco's latest takes a while to seep in
REVIEW | Wilco, 'Sky Blue Sky' (Nonesuch)

There are moments of undeniable beauty on Wilco's sixth album, especially during the most lulling and introspective songs, including the opening "Either Way," "You Are My Face" and "What Light." The latter continues the defense of pausing to take stock while fearlessly forging your own path that Tweedy is talking about in interviews: "If you feel like singing a song / And you want other people to sing along / Then just sing what you feel / And don't let anyone say it's wrong."

Noble as that sentiment is, "Sky Blue Sky" takes longer to click in than any of Wilco's earlier albums, including the allegedly difficult "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and "A Ghost Is Born." I only began to appreciate the gorgeous subtlety of the best tunes after a dozen listens, which may seem like a lot of work. But if any artist of his generation has earned the right to ask his fans' indulgence, it's Jeff Tweedy.

Even if you make this effort, though, it can be hard to discern the emotions the songwriter says he's trying to convey, and the less successful songs offer little reason to sing along, sounding either repetitive and incomplete ("Impossible Germany"), sleepy and backward-looking ("Sky Blue Sky," "Please be Patient With Me") or just plain misguided (the Little Feat-like "Walken" or "Hate It Here," with its tedious domestic metaphors about learning to use the washing machine, do the dishes and fold the sheets).

Granted, part of the problem was the anticipation that the group would continue to explore the boldly unconventional soundscapes of its last three albums or that, if it got back to basics, it would do so in the hard-rocking, guitar-heavy fashion of recent stage shows. But those aren't the only expectations plaguing the disc: Longing for a safe, secure and loving future is the major theme in many of the lyrics, and these are paired with sounds that are just as unthreatening and common as those universal desires.

For my money, Wilco has done its greatest work when Tweedy has given voice to his darkest sentiments, as on "Summerteeth," or pondered the most frightening and unsettling aspects of these troubled times, as on the last two albums. And that's a voice we need much more than fresh sheets or clean dishes.

Wilco, 'Sky Blue Sky' (Nonesuch)
Critic's rating: 3 stars