Posted by: Mark Nielsen | October 9, 2008

Wilco: Music You Hate to Hate

There are bands and singers that come around every once in awhile that I wish I could like, and I know I really ought to like –given how similar they are to other acts I like (in subject matter, or their overall sound)– but I just can’t bring myself to enjoy their music. Do you know what I mean?

The quintessential band that falls into this category for me has always been the Rolling Stones (who didn’t just come around, obviously, but have been here since the Stone Age). I appreciate their music intellectually. “Sympathy for the Devil” was a masterpiece, of a sort. I think Keith Richards is one of the best rhythm guitarists ever (players of the Guitar Hero video game will recall his tasty licks). I even agree that “Satisfaction” is the best rock and roll song ever, as determined in some poll a few years ago. But I can’t say I like the Stones.

Another band I felt this way about, up until their last album, is Chicago’s own Wilco. Their first few years, I liked the singles I heard on the radio. I also appreciated the work they did on the two excellent Mermaid Avenue records, where along with U.K. hard-folker Billy Bragg, they took some long-dormant lyrics written by the incomparable Woody Guthrie and set them to music, in a variety of styles. I thought, “Hey, Wilco started out as an alternative country act, they’re supposedly very “literary”, their drummer Glenn Kotche went to my high school and graduated with my sister … what’s not to like?”

Then I actually bought and listened to the 1999 Summerteeth record, and found it sort of plodding on the whole, interesting but not much fun. A few years later, I tried again with the critically lauded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, only to discover it was even more depressing and unnecessarily heady — a musically dense, lyrically brooding, overproduced attempt to write and perform something “important”. I gave it plenty of listens to see if the record would grow on me, win me over. But it didn’t, so I threw in the towel and put the band in that “respectable but tedious” category with the Rolling Stones.

But around that same time, I heard an interview and some radio talkshow business discussing leader and main lyricist Jeff Tweedy’s struggle with clinical depression. He was beating it, though, so I figured maybe the band’s music would benefit from the change as well. And with last year’s Sky Blue Sky, which as usual I bought well after the release date, I find I actually do like their unique voice and musical vision. At least it’s more hopeful and moving now, instead of just keen observations of what’s wrong with the world. Whew! Finally. Thank God for serotonin reuptake inhibitor drugs, or whatever helped Tweedy turn his negative outlook into a reasonably positive one (without being willfully ignorant and upbeat).

Now Wilco’s out on the road with my man Neil Young, Kotche recently worked with Kronos Quartet (like another fave, Elvis Costello, once did with the Brodsky String Quartet), and Tweedy’s a comfortable family man, and among the more respected mid-career veterans of the music scene. That makes me happy.

For evidence of peace of mind (in the midst of war), just look at the progression from frustration to acceptance, from doubt to a kind of faith, in the following two Wilco songs. The first is from 1999 (Summerteeth), the second from 2007 (Sky Blue Sky).

Can’t Stand It – by Wilco (J. Tweedy)

The Way Things Go
You Get So Low
Struggle To Find Your Skin
Hey Ho
Look Out Below
Your Prayers Will Never Be Answered Again

Phones Still Ring
And Singers Sing
Speakers Are Speaking In Code
What Now
Well Anyhow
Our Prayers Will Never Be Answered Again

You Know It’s All Beginning
(it’s All Beginning)
To Feel Like It’s Ending
(feels Like It’s Ending)
No Loves As Random
As God’s Love
I Can’t Stand It
I Can’t Stand It

The Way Things Get
You Get So High
Funny How We Make New Friends
Oh Hey Ho
I Gotta Go
My Prayers Will Never Be Answered Again

You Know It’s All Beginning
(it’s All Beginning)
To Feel Like It’s Ending
(feels Like It’s Ending)
No Loves As Random
As God’s Love
I Can’t Stand It
I Can’t Stand It

Speakers Speaking
Speakers Speaking
Speaking In Code    (x2)

You Know It’s All Beginning
(it’s All Beginning)
To Feel Like Pretending
(to Feel Like Pretending)
No Loves As Random
As My Love
I Can’t Stand It
I Can’t Stand It

Your Prayers Will Never Be Answered Again (x4)


What Light (Tweedy)

If you feel like singing a song
And you want other people to sing along
Just sing what you feel
Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong

And if you’re trying to paint a picture
But you’re not sure which colors belong
Just paint what you see
Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong

And if you’re strung out like a kite
Or stung awake in the night
It’s alright to be frightened

When there’s a light (what light)
There’s a light (one light)
There’s a light (white light)
Inside of you

If you think you might need somebody
To pick you up when you drag
Don’t loose sight of yourself
Don’t let anyone change your bag

And if the whole world’s singing your songs
And all of your paintings have been hung
Just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on

And that’s not wrong or right
But you can struggle with it all you like
You’ll only get uptight

Because there’s a light (what light)
There’s a light (one light)
There’s a light (white light)
There’s a light (what light)
There’s a light (one light)
There’s a light (white light)
Inside of you

And just for good measure, here’s our ideal prescription for the best possible outcome in the elections this November, courtesy of Wilco and Woody:
Christ For President (lyrics by Woody Guthrie)
Let’s have Christ our President
Let us have him for our king
Cast your vote for the Carpenter
That they call the Nazarene

The only way
We could ever beat
These crooked politician men

Is to cast the moneychangers
Out of the temple
Put the Carpenter in

Oh it’s Jesus Christ our President
God above our king
With a job and pension for young and old
We will make hallelujah ring

Every year we waste enough
To feed the ones who starve
We build our civilization up
And we shoot it down with wars

But with the Carpenter
On the seat
Way up in the capitol town

Be on the way
Prosperity bound

Indeed. May we all be healthy, intelligent, and hopeful enough to stop this national downward spiral and make the right choices in November (which for me are Obama, and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky [a prospect to take Obama’s Senate seat if he becomes president?], and Dick Durbin). More importantly, we have to choose hope beyond November. Music isn’t some miracle drug, nor is any single candidate or platform. But faith, hope and love –in whatever form we can find or create them– might do the trick.


  1. Interview Request

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    Ghazala Khan
    The Pakistani Spectator

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