Part One: Kids and Kidsmoke
Wilco will always be too traditional for those who want them to be weird, and too weird for those who want them to be traditional. For all the hype about its sonic experiments, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot can still break your heart into twin towers mainly because of Jeff Tweedy’s arresting songs. Yet to certain hipstersâ€”call them peasants with their Pitchforksâ€”Tweedy has since become the archetypal boring dad, leading a mythical genre known as dad rock.
Tweedy does seems like a devoted dad. This July, he smiled warmly when his son (heavy metal drummer Spencer) came onstage in Berkeley dressed like one of the Fleet Foxes. But the haters are getting ugly. Vice offered Wilco fans the sensitive advice that â€œyou might as well sterilize yourselves, because if you have kids they are guaranteed to be assholes too.â€ Reviewing this year’s Wilco (The Album) the Village Voice trash-talked Tweedy as â€œa pale father of twoâ€ who makes music for white people to relax.
The notion that “dad rock” is a bad thing brings out the fighting side of me. I am a pale father of two. I wash dishes and mow the lawn, though not particularly well. I find myself trying to â€œbalance fun with crushing depression,â€ just like Tweedy. Despite the occasional bad haircut or twelve-minute migraine, Tweedy has special gifts. He channels the Replacements and the Carter Family. He croaks strange poetry in gorgeously cranky second-generation Dylanisms. He hallucinates about spiders doing tax returns to the tune of Canâ€™s â€œMother Sky.â€ If Wilco is the new â€œnormal,â€ my life is a David Lynch movie.
Wilco, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”
Part Two: So Misunderstood
I wish I’d been a fly on the wall in the meeting brainstorming the cover art for Wilco’s new eponymous disc, destined to be known as The Camel Album:
Record executive: “Jeff, we’ve got a problem. People are starting to think you’re a tired fossil who has no rock and roll fun.”
Tweedy: “Wait, I’ve got it! Let’s give them a fez-wearing camel with an enormous birthday cake! And let’s have the photo shoot at Mader’s Restaurant in Milwaukee, home of the Schnitzelbank drinking song! Beer-loving Lutherans will love us once again, especially once they discover that Bon Iver is really the Unabomber.”
I love that, after getting lambasted with the “dad rock” label, Wilco chose to use a children’s birthday party theme on the cover. Despite more ups and downs than the camel, Wilco (The Album) is a truckload of fun for dads of all ages. Once in a while, as with Sky Blue Sky, it could use one of Tweedy’s frenemies named Jay — Jay Farrar, or the sadly departed Jay Bennett — to give Tweedy a kick in the pants and keep things moving. The album wonâ€™t bring back the Neil Young Country of Being There, the lush chamber pop of Summerteeth, or the fractured anthems of Foxtrot. But it draws memorably from all the Wilcos we have known, as well as a few of their heroes. Here’s a sampling of the new tracks, with accompanying sermonette and source material:
Waiting for My Van
The taut, chunky guitars plugging along at the start of â€œWilco (The Song)” reveal it as a dad-friendly reworking of the Velvet Undergroundâ€™s â€œWaiting for the Man.â€ But rather than going to Lexington and 125th to buy drugs, like Lou Reed, Tweedy sounds more like heâ€™s on the prowl for a neighborhood featuring tree-lined streets and an excellent school system. Pure genius. But it gets better. He refers to his own band in the song, like heâ€™s in Wang Chung telling everybody to wang chung tonight. And instead of trying to break your heart, he throws out warm fuzzies. â€œWilco will love ya, baby,â€ he intones, like heâ€™s Telly Savalas. And who among us doesnâ€™t need a dad-friendly hybrid of the Velvet Underground, Wang Chung and Telly Savalas?
Wilco, “Wilco (The Song)”
Velvet Underground, “Waiting for the Man”
Bull Black Volvo
Those who think Tweedy is now only serving happy meals should listen to â€œBull Black Nova,â€ The Albumâ€™s chilly melodrama in the tradition of “Via Chicago” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” Tweedy and superlative lead guitarist Nels Cline build a high-wire frenzy that sounds like a lost track from Televisionâ€™s Marquee Moon. But Televisionâ€™s Cadillac pulled into the graveyard in different times, when General Motors wasnâ€™t yet a public works program. Thereâ€™s nothing remotely dad rock about a Chevy Nova, which probably doesnâ€™t even have airbags. I want Tweedy to write his next murder mystery about my Volvo V70 station wagon.
Wilco, “Bull Black Nova”
Television, “Marquee Moon”
Bastards of Old
â€œYou Never Knowâ€ is shimmering power pop in Wilcoâ€™s Summerteeth tradition, sounding like Big Star playing something from George Harrisonâ€™s All Things Must Pass. Then the lyrics kick in, and they deserve a hallowed place in the dad rock hall of fame: â€œCome on children, youâ€™re acting like children/ Every generation thinks itâ€™s the end of the world.â€ As I blurted out to my six year-old girl last week: â€œWill you please stop acting like a child?â€ Wilco gets it, and I feel so validated.
(The flip side of the “You Never Know” seven-inch single is Unlikely Japan, a version of Skyâ€™s â€œImpossible Germanyâ€ that sounds more like a Foxtrot outtake).
Wilco, “You Never Know”
George Harrison, “What is Life”
Wilco (The Duet)
Jeff launches into lullaby mode on “You and I,” proving those crib-side crooning sessions with his boys werenâ€™t in vain. Then, faster than you can count to four, Canadian mathematician Leslie Feist joins in for a little game of She & Him, with Feist playing the role of Zooey Deschanel while Tweedy turns into Matt Ward. A shade too cute, but itâ€™s dad-tastic!
Wilco (with Feist), “You and I”
She and Him, “This is Not a Test”
Part Three: A Can of Spiders
Spiders are singing in the salty breeze
Spiders are filling out tax returns
Spinning out webs of deductions and melodies
On a private beach in Michigan
Why can’t they wish their kisses good
Why do they miss when their kisses should
Fly like winging birds fighting for the keys
On a private beach in Michigan
This recent rash of kidsmoke
All these telescopic poems
It’s good to be alone
Wilco, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”
Can, “Mother Sky”