Today’s song is in honor of tomorrow’s birthday boy, Jeff Tweedy, frontman for Wilco, and for yesterday’s birthday boy, my friend Andrew, something of a Wilco fan, among other things. His suggestion was “Hummingbird” from A Ghost is Born (2004). Not a bad choice because, as it happens, that’s one of the few songs I know on that album, which is not one of my favorites by Wilco. As the follow up to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002), the breakthrough album to me, Ghost moved from the over-dubbed deconstructions of Foxtrot to something a bit more guitar-based. I saw Wilco live only once and it was on Ghost’s tour which felt a little too much like a bid for “classic rock” status. In fact, the next album, Sky Blue Sky (2007), which I liked quite a bit better and return to quite a bit, earned the epithet “dad-rock” from the pundits. Fair enough, I suppose, and maybe I should choose a song from that to add to the plethora of dad-rock in this series (my choice would be “Either Way”). But I’m not going there.
I’m going back to the album before Foxtrot, when Jay Bennett—who was dismissed after that album, and died in 2009—was still a force in the band. Bennett’s intense work on Foxtrot had much to do with that album’s unique qualities, I believe. And its predecessor, Summerteeth, has many qualities in common with it, which is why I chose to go back from Foxtrot rather than forward. A way of saying that those two albums are still the peak of Wilco, even if I do consider Tweedy to have become “the voice” of his time—the Aughts—the way Michael Stipe was for the Eighties. The “voice” possessing particular aural qualities that are not only immediately recognizable, but also expressive in a way that is simply more than usually suitable. Tweedy’s shaky, scratchy voice seems always on the verge of a panic attack or recovering from some shambling bout of inner-demon wrestling. And that works for me.
That quality is perhaps nowhere as evident as on “Via Chicago,” a song full of a kind of uneasy psychological détente with such demons as may always be present. I’m not sure when I first picked up Summerteeth, but I know it was not until after Ghost disappointed me, and after I saw the band live. I became a bit more thorough about picking up the threads. And this is the song that struck me as the unavoidable song. How can you resist a song that opens with “I dreamed about killing you again last night / And it felt alright to me”? Elsewhere the lyrics get a bit disjointed, perhaps to simulate the breakdown the speaker is facing—risking, perhaps—in this exposure of his own jugular. When you go on record saying it felt alright to dream of killing someone, it tends to put the spotlight on you.
But the song has a kind of resilience that appeals to me. The feeling that the bleakest moments generally point the way out. In this case, the reiterations—in those unmistakeable Tweedy tones—“I’m coming home / I’m coming home / Via Chicago” sound frayed but assertive. He’s coming home, goddamn it! Then it switches to “Searching for a home / Via Chicago,” which might be a way of saying it's shifting from coming back to thinking about going on. That alone is a touch subtle enough to keep us with him, late in the song.
The part that screams “great lyric” is the section when he assumes he’ll “make it back / One of these days” and turn on “your TV” to “watch a man with a face like mine / Being chased down a busy street.” Nothing like paranoia via media to buck you up for the inner shit-storm.
The musical soundscape is redolent of “dad-rock” in the best sense: the kind of experimental uses of odd instrumentation—love the mellotron, guys!—that created the shifting sense of possibility in some of the great records of the Sixties and Seventies. Albums that Bennett and Tweedy loved too. When I come upon musicians who have been marked by the music that marked me, I tend to respond. At a certain point I find myself asking if their work measures up. A song like “Via Chicago” convinces me not only in terms of its musical pedigree—if you will—but in the “writing a song to save my soul” standard that applies, in some cases—and they know who they are!
Buried you alive in a fireworks display / Raining down on me