‘Summerteeth’ – A Look Back at Wilco’s Big Pop Move
After alt-country heroes Uncle Tupelo split up in 1994 and their two singer-songwriters, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, formed new bands, everyone assumed that Farrar was the one with a long and promising future. When they both released albums the next year – Farrar with Son Volt and Tweedy with Wilco – there was still little doubt: Son Volt’s ‘Trace’ had better songs than Wilco’s ‘A.M.’
Then something happened over the next two years. Farrar got lazy and Son Volt got boring, while Tweedy got ambitious and Wilco got interesting. On 1996’s double-disc ‘Being There,’ Tweedy chronicled the history of rock ‘n’ roll as heard through his late-twentysomething ears, enveloping punk, post-punk, pop, country, art-rock, indie rock and at least a half-dozen other styles of music in his quest to put together a story of his life as it related to music. That was just the start.
When Wilco returned in 1999 with their third album, ‘Summerteeth,’ they sounded like a different band. ‘A.M.’’s twang was almost completely gone, replaced by candy-colored pop melodies and a playground filled with kaleidoscopic studio toys. Working with synths, horns and Jay Bennett, a multi-instrumentalist who played everything from lap steel to various organs, Tweedy crafted a psych-pop record swimming in sun-kissed melodies. Bennett played on ‘Being There,’ but he became a true collaborator on ‘Summerteeth,’ receiving co-write credit on all but two of the songs and helping Tweedy construct the album piece by piece in the studio.
But underneath the rays of musical sunshine lie some very dark lyrics. Tweedy was going through a rough period in his marriage at the time, and his words are a tortured combination of confusion, pain and violence. Songs like ‘Can’t Stand It’ and ‘Shot in the Arm’ reflect his frustration. But musically, ‘Summerteeth’ is a revelation (even if it stalled at No. 78 and still hasn’t gone gold). Tweedy never looked back. Wilco followed the album with ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ and a string of increasingly complex records that have made them one of the best bands of the ‘00s. Meanwhile, Farrar and his acoustic guitar wonder what happened.
Listen to Wilco’s ‘Can’t Stand It’