We’ve all had friends and family members post inspirational memes on social media. Maybe you’ve even done it yourself. And while the act is, for the most part, harmless, it can also mask some of the bleaker emotions and attitudes that come with it. In other words, someone who posts something like “I am too positive to be doubtful” should probably switch those adjectives around. Chances are they’re not sharing those words because they’re actually a wholly positive person, but because they’re trying their damnedest to be positive in the face of massive pain, in the face of massive self-doubt, in the face of massive pessimism. Many of us struggle with all of these things on a daily basis, even if we say we don’t.
So what do you do with negativity? Do you pretend that the Mr. Hyde to your Dr. Jekyll doesn’t exist? Do you pretend that you’re so positive, nothing ever gets to you? Do you post a meme, which is essentially the Internet equivalent to covering up rotting wood with a thin layer of veneer? You could choose any or all of those options. You could. That’s the easy route. Or, you could own up to to your darker feelings, the feelings that no one should be ashamed of to begin with.
(Guide: Wilco in 10 Songs)
That’s exactly what Jeff Tweedy and his long-running creative juggernaut Wilco have done on their tenth album, Schmilco, a record that they’ve described as “joyously negative.” As Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman pointed out in our cover story on the LP, it’s “a description that should frustrate every music critic out there looking for the perfect signifier.” He’s right. It is frustrating to search for cynicism and discontent in an album that finds the band sounding more at ease than … well, ever. If Tweedy has so much to be crabby about, then why the hell does he sound so relaxed?
Because those two states of mind aren’t mutually exclusive. The latter might even be dependent on the former, and Schmilco recognizes that from the get-go. On opener “Normal American Kids”, Tweedy reflects on how carefree his younger days were, even though he resented the positivity of his peers while growing up. Now that he’s older and has witnessed or experienced events actually worth fretting about — addiction, sick relatives, doomsday politics, the works — he realizes the cruel joke of his own adolescent misanthropy: So many of us spend the easiest times of our lives being consumed with dread when the worst is yet to come. And when the worst does come at an older age, sometimes we’re better equipped to deal with it than in the past — if we’re honest about our own darkness, that is. “Normal American Kids” is not a song about wasted romance or happiness, but wasted worrying. Think of it as a gleefully grotesque reversal to “Heavy Metal Drummer” and all its halcyon sentimentality.
Even if my interpretation is completely off-base, it’s still easy to glean a deeper message from the majority of Schmilco‘s tracks due to the turned-down arrangements. Though the album came out of the same sessions as last year’s looser, wilder, and intentionally irreverent Star Wars, there’s now a deliberate quietness and gentleness to the core instrumentation. For rhythm guitar, Tweedy and Pat Sansone largely stick to their acoustics, and drummer Glenn Kotche — so fond of hypnotic percussive explosions in concert — often trades out his sticks for brushes, allowing the words to push themselves to the forefront. It’s a similar approach to 2007’s Sky Blue Sky — “If I Ever Was a Child” and “Cry All Day” could have been two of the best cuts off that record — only with much more juxtaposition. As such, “Someone To Lose” becomes a calmly extended middle finger to illness and death, a means of overcoming these unfair, almost biblical forces by recognizing that yeah, they exist; yeah, they suck; and yeah, they’re sometimes unstoppable.
Although much of Schmilco is ripe for this kind of bigger-picture analysis, the dwarfing lyrical content occasionally gets distilled into something more insular and direct. While “Someone To Lose” remains cryptic about who Tweedy’s referencing — maybe his wife fighting cancer or someone else altogether — “Quarters” explicitly recalls a memory of working at his grandfather’s bar. “The tavern where you work was cold and dark as a cavern,” he remembers in an effectively plain simile that couldn’t be farther from the poetic abstractions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. There’s no nostalgia or grief to the reminiscence. If anything, the younger Tweedy sounds a little pissed off at the patriarch’s curmudgeonly ways. Why couldn’t the old guy just give him a goddamn quarter? That’s where the negativity comes from. And the joy? Look to the shift in time signature halfway through the song, when John Stirratt gets more adventurous with his bass line and Kotche jumps from the toms to an excitable drumroll.
(Cover Story: A Wilco State of Mind)
The trend of conflictingly writing about family also pops up one song earlier on “Happiness”, a pragmatic sort of eulogy for Tweedy’s late mother. At first, he sings about her passing with deadpan resignation: “She gave her body to science,” he exhales as the band plunks away in slow-motion behind him. But towards the end, the matter-of-fact funeral becomes more spiritual. “I know the dead still listen,” affirms Tweedy. “She sings a part of every refrain.” Then, in what could be the grand thesis statement of Schmilco: “Happiness depends on who you blame.”
But the acceptance of hardship and anxiety doesn’t solely come from the lyrics. Even the record’s calmest songs have tiny sonic details that gnaw at the lobes of the ears and brain. Unsurprisingly, most of them come from lead guitarist Nels Cline. Rather than showboat or, as he he put it in the cover story, “be fucking Mr. Dude guitar-player,” he keeps his parts tastefully nervous, creeping up every few seconds on Schmilco‘s twitchiest outlier, “Common Sense”, with frenzied strumming until the song gives in to its own neuroses. When a xylophone eventually takes over, you can’t help but wonder if someone has started playing the ribcage of a cartoon skeleton. Similarly, his discordant bursts of distortion on both “Nope” and lead single “Locator” arm-wrestle with the steadier dynamics of Mikael Jorgensen‘s keys. Like the rest of Schmilco, the songs have chaos without ever being chaotic. This leaves room for some of Tweedy’s surliest (and best) one-liners that tie back to that idea of joyous negativity: “Why kill a man when you can drive him crazy?” Now that‘s an inspirational meme.
Essential Tracks: “Normal American Kids”, “If I Ever Was a Child, “Common Sense”, and “Someone to Lose”