Saturday, August 2, 2008

Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and the Ambiguities of Life and Love

I wrote earlier about unhealthy representations of love in pop songs, discussing Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love." Jeff Tweedy in Wilco has managed the opposite, to write songs that show a more realistic display of emotions that accompany romantic journeys.

One song is on his first post-Uncle Tupelo album, A.M. The album certainly still sounds like a country album, unlike his most recent material. Of course, Tweedy has from the beginning crossed musical boundaries, even if his experimentation has been somewhat limited. While a country musician, Uncle Tupelo recorded songs like "Gun" that fit in nicely with the so-called "alternative" movement of the early 1990s and sounded a lot like a punk song. For the record, Uncle Tupelo's "Effigy" is found on the No Alternative compilation CD. It has been commented that Tweedy has always tried to write the perfect song, or the perfect pop song. One of those attempts was UT's "Gun." Another attempt is the mainstream sounding "Shouldn't be Ashamed" from Wilco's debut album.

The song presents alternative situations in every verse. The song begins, "To live without a savior / to answer to His name." On one hand, you might not believe in God or care that one exists. On the other hand, maybe you do and go to church regularly. In either case, "You shouldn't be ashamed / you shouldn't be afraid." The situation of the second verse concerns anonmyity in modern society: "Like a kid behind the counter / remembering your name." Where in the world do cashiers know who you are? Hence the ambiguity as an otherwise anonymous situation turns out to be one in which the other person, the salesperson or cashier, remembers or recognizes you. Again, this isn't any reason to be "ashamed" or even "afraid." Depending on what you're buying or looking for, or how nervious or shy your are, you might easily feel one of these emotions.

The chorus makes the song into something of a love song: "'Cause if it's not like I told you / Then it's still your call / You should live how you want." The chorus begins, pointing out the conditions of a "deal" and a statement that should always be true ("You should live how you want"). Of course, life and the decisions that one takes have consequences and effects: "Stay with me" the narrator pleads, but then recapitulates and adds, "We should stay apart," the final ambiguity neatly stated. The chorus concludes, pondering the dilemma of modern life and these kinds of decisions, "Just shouldn't ever have to be this hard."

Love doesn't solve any problems in this song; it only creates new ones. Regardless of one's religious views or how anonymous one is in one's hometown (or elsewhere), love poses some tough decisions and doesn't make life easier.

The song continues with a situation reminiscent of that of the second verse: "Like a man on the sidewalk / Remembering your face." Of course, some random guy on the sidewalk should be just that -- random. As such, there's no reason for him to remember who you are. Maybe a store clerk -- especially in a store that one frequents, that might be understood. But a random guy on the street? Finally, this guy has a memory, "He remembers when they still wore gaiters / World war one." Signs of a simpler time? In any case, the narrator pleads for an easier life, this one "Just shouldn't ever have to be this hard."

These ambiguities would be developed in Wilco's breaththrough album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, on the album's first track, "I am Trying to Break your Heart." The song has six verses and a single chorus that isn't repeated, or seven verses (since it's not repeated, is it really a chorus?). Each of the verses except the sixth ends with a line that is both simliar and different in each stanza. The line begins "What was I thinking when" and ends differently, except the final line of the final verse is identical to the last line in the first verse (these two verses are also very similar). For complete lyrics, go here. For a live video of the song, go here.

The song begins with a man in a sort of haze (probably drunken, perhaps reminiscient of Tweedy's struggles with drugs): "I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue" and sets the context of the song: "I'm hiding out in the big city blinking / what was I thinking when I let go of you?" The song is situated after the end of a romantic relationship with the narrator thinking about getting back together: "Let's forget about the tongue-tied lightning / Let's undress like cross-eyed strangers." And later, "I'd always thought that if I held you tightly / You'd always love me like you did back then / Then I fell asleep and the city kept blinking / What was I thinking when I let you back in?"

By now the narrator has either realized his mistake in trying to get back together or his mistake in thinking about his lover in his own mind. He changes his tune and tries to turn the tables, suggesting that he's not vulnerable and in love, he is "trying to break your [her?] heart." In other words, he is trying to seduce her and is trying to convince himself that he doesn't really care about her.

That's not the case, though, as the song ends with a final verse that's nearly identical to the first: "Disposable dixie-cup drinker / I assassin down the avenue / I'm hiding out in the big city blinking / what was I thinking when I let go of you?" The reference to aquarium has been changed to dixie cups -- either the drinking has become rather informal or it is a reference to drug rehab. The music is sad throughout, though lightly upbeat, but seems especially melancholic here at the end (especially on the recorded version).

The narrator in these songs is aware that relationships are not a panacea for one's problems. "Maybe we should stay apart" is a reasonable solution, and seems to be the final answer on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot just as it was on A.M., released several years earlier. The love song will never disappear -- poetry about love has been around at least as long as there has been secular literature in modern languages (I hesitate to speak on classical Greek or Roman poetry; my thought is that there was love poetry but until I find examples, I best avoid silly errors). Though it may never disappear, there will be sappy, silly love songs and others that address the complicated and conflicted emotions therein (not that all such songs are bad, John Lennon's "Oh Yoko" has a certain charm to it, to name but one example). Tweedy's songs are among those that address these complications and the ambiguous feelings that result.

No comments: