Dusting ‘Em Off: Wilco – Summerteeth


A sun shower.

That may be the finest way of describing Summerteeth, the third studio album by Wilco. Despite its sunny disposition, the record has its share of rain showers. The rich harmonies of “She’s a Jar” can’t hide the physical abuse within. “Via Chicago” is similar, but even more violent. These interludes of eerie calm interrupt the sunlight just enough to avoid any accusations of monotony. Summerteeth is one of the best records to come out of the 90s, and a fitting send-off to the partnership of Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett.

Yes, Tweedy and Bennett worked together on the classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but that was a much more divisive process that ultimately led to Bennett’s firing/resignation. But enough of such dreary days! Back to the sinewy sounds of Summerteeth, one of the best summer records ever released in the spring. At this point, the strong partnership of Tweedy and Bennett actually overshadowed the other members of Wilco. Eternal bassist John Stirratt and former drummer Ken Coomer were practically relegated to sideman-duties for the album’s recording. This was very much Tweedy and Bennett’s baby, a “Twee-nett” affair, if you will (but I hope you won’t).

A topic that is always batted around pertains to the violence sprinkled throughout Summerteeth, primarily in aforementioned tracks “She’s a Jar” and “Via Chicago”. The former features Tweedy sounding far older than any 31-year-old man should. Deliberately disorienting, “She’s a Jar” describes a woman in loving fashion:

A sleepy kisser
A pretty war
With feelings hid,
She begs me not to miss her

These feelings swim throughout the song, another layer upon Bennett’s multi-tasking instrumentation. Bennett throws in organ, keyboard, guitar, effects, and roughly 75,000 more instruments on top of that. Songs often get swallowed up this way, but with “She’s a Jar” and most of the other tracks on Summerteeth, they breathe just fine.

The closing line is where the idea gets complicated. “She begs me not to miss her” changes to “She begs me not to hit her,” a line that even disturbed Tweedy’s wife. The sporadic violence pops up again later down the line with the epic “Via Chicago”, another song that erupts with every instrument Bennett can muster up at the time.

I dreamed about killing you again last night
And it felt alright to me
Dying on the banks of Embarcadero skies
I sat and watched you bleed

Buried you alive in a fireworks display
Raining down on me
Your cold, hot blood
Ran away from me to the sea

Yikes! Tweedy’s storytelling is in full-force here. It’s found in the brutal lyrics soaked in such fluid production. After the fits and starts throughout the five-minute piece, it all disintegrates as Tweedy cries, “I’m coming home…I’m coming home.” Haunting, and Wilco at its very best.

“A Shot in the Arm” counts itself amongst the blood-soaked tradition of the previous songs, “bloodier than blood.” The lyrics/music combo answers the question of “What if Brian Wilson was even weirder?” Stirratt’s presence is certainly felt here, with his bass lines answering every line Tweedy sings. It’s another song that builds and builds before it all explodes in the end.

There is a duo of tracks on Summerteeth that represent everything the already-discussed material does not. They are somewhat restrained, calling back to the simpler times of Being There, or even A.M. “We’re Just Friends” and “My Darling” both begin rather softly.

Over and over and over again
You say that we’re just friends

Forget the implications
Infatuations end

Go back to sleep now
My darling
And I’ll keep all the bad dreams away
Breathe now, think sweet things
And I’ll think of all the right words to say

No mention of hanging people in fireworks displays or crying pillows. Just simple lyrics, with one character crying out the frustrations of the “friend-with-benefits” dilemma, while the other sits by the bedside of his child (or lover). Strangely enough, along with the violent tracks these quieter tunes make the pop songs surrounding them, well, pop!

And boy do they pop. The following quartet is the best example of bouncy rhythm sections, keyboard glee, jangly guitars and impassioned vocals: “I’m Always in Love”, “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)”, “ELT”, and “Candyfloss”. There’s a live bootleg taken from a performance at the Vic around the time Wilco was touring A Ghost is Born. In between songs, Tweedy calls out for his wife. After locating her in the audience, he simply says, “Suzie. I love you.” After thanking her for everything she helped him through, he launches into “I’m Always in Love”.

Why not leave with that notion? Go out into the sunshine today, soak it in, hope it never burns out Sunshine-style. Don’t call to mind the separation of Bennett from Tweedy. Remember the two friends, holding each other on a long flight, struggling through whatever sickness hounded them. Ultimately, remember just how valuable Jay Bennett was to the Wilco sound.


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