Playing God
Wilco: Summerteeth

wilco are a divisive band, sure, but I can’t even make up my mind about which albums of theirs I like, let alone form an opinion about their work as a whole. Is Being There one of my favorite classic rock albums or the last boring remnants of their “alt-country” phase? Is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the record I listened to obsessively for a month and still occasionally hear, or some good songs surrounded by cold studio artifice?

And Summerteeth is the worst of them all, alternatively my favorite Wilco album and the one I can least stand, the one that works best as a whole or the one weighted down with too many sub-par songs. If Yankee Hotel Foxtrot saw them finally grabbing the “American Radiohead” brass ring that so many bands were after, Summerteeth was their pop album. Deeply weird (like all the best pop) and sporting more than one song that combined a sound that sounded like radio gold with lyrics that hinted that Jeff Tweedy’s head was filled with demons and headaches.

Digging deep into Summerteeth for this article I came to the conclusion that I really liked most of the songs (even some that didn’t get included), but there’s something off about the album as a whole. Too long, too ambitious; it’s trying to make a grand statement that never quite happens. I love all the weird little pop songs on Summerteeth, not the draggy ballads and gloomy pall of angst. So I took out all the songs that didn’t fit what I loved (and perhaps not coincidentally, all the longer tracks) and was left with a trim forty minutes that I can finally stand behind and say: This is my favorite Wilco album.

1. “Can’t Stand It” (3:46)
Sometimes you really do just have to keep the original opener. I have a soft spot for less than devotional songs that use church bells (see also: “No God Only Religion” by Spiritualized), and for whatever pre-rational reason “No love’s as random / As God’s love” still feels like the right motto for this odd little album.

2. “Tried And True” (2:48, “Can’t Stand It” b-side)
What this is, really, is an alternate version of “Summer Teeth” (same verses, similar melody, different chorus), but instead of the err, summery feel of that version the piano and the grin in Jeff Tweedy’s voice makes this feel like more of a curtains-up sort of song. It sounds like Tweedy’s being sarcastic when he sings “Tried and true / That’s you,” but it’s not as if Summerteeth suffers from a little vinegar. And most importantly the music hall stomp of “Tried And True” follows up “Can’t Stand It” far better than “She’s A Jar” ever did.

3. “A Shot In The Arm (Single Mix)” (3:54, hidden track)
Tucked away at the end of the original album as a bonus for those of us who didn’t pick up the single, this is similar to the album mix; the main differences being that the production isn’t as glossy and the closing flurry of distortion is excised. But the production is still an homage to all things Spector, and the mellotron and bass is what makes “A Shot In The Arm” exciting. I like this version better, but the original is pretty close.

4. “Pieholden Suite” (3:26)
Although I do like the sweet sentiment of the first half of “Pieholden Suite,” the slow swoop of the backing vocals, the ashamed admittance “But you know I’ve been untrue,” it’s the second half that seals the deal. “Whenever we kissed we were surprised / To find so much inside” and then the keyboards and strings lilt their way to Heaven, and then we get the horns. Those horns are really why “Pieholden Suite” is here, but the whole thing is wonderful.

5. “We’re Just Friends” (2:44)
Just because you can’t find “How To Fight Loneliness” or “Via Chicago” in this version of Summerteeth doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and smiles. It couldn’t be, really, with the lyrics Tweedy wrote, but unlike some of the depressive songs on the original Summerteeth, “We’re Just Friends” doesn’t drag. Partly because it’s short, yes, but the backing vocals (like a sad echo of “Pieholden Suite”’s) help a lot. There are such truly epic levels of misery in Tweedy’s voice as he sings “But I promise / We’re just friends” that to dwell on it for much longer than this would be masochism.

6. “I’m Always In Love” (3:41)
The opening keyboard squeal of “I’m Always In Love” just has to come after the hush of “We're Just Friends,” here as on the original Summerteeth. That sine-y squeal is the key to the song, playing counterpoint after each of Tweedy’s lines in the first verse and chorus. There’s something vaguely menacing about the closing repetition of “I’m worried / I’m always in love,” but there’s something menacing or disturbing about most of these songs. It doesn’t make them any less catchy, and there’s a proud lineage of less than well-adjusted pop, after all.

7. “ELT” (3:46)
Another trebly keyboard part, this time pitched against Jay Bennett’s awesome guitar, which sounds almost like a pedal steel, although the liner notes don’t specify. Tweedy goes hoarse shouting, they expertly insert those crucial piano notes between everything else, and this is just as near-perfect as all the other rockers from Summerteeth.

8. “My Darling” (3:38)
Just because Tweedy no longer restricted himself to the tropes of alt-country doesn’t mean he had to ditch the signifiers entirely. The opening to the gorgeous lullaby “My Darling” employs some incongruous saloon piano before kicking in with e-bow, keyboards, and drums. This is easily the most unambiguously positive song on either version of the album and it builds nicely until the keyboards start slowly picking their way through the melody of the next track.

9. “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)” (3:20)
I imagine it was a conscious decision to separate “My Darling” and this song, but I like them squished together so you can read the end of “My Darling” as kind of a reluctant prologue. The sentiments are certainly miles apart; this one might be the most menacing song from the title on down to “I was taught that love’s a weed / That grows inside of me.” But like everything else on Summerteeth it’s coated in such great pop songwriting and production that even when Tweedy begins monotonally reciting the line “I’m a bomb regardless” it’s catchy and fun, as long as you don’t listen too closely.

10. “Summer Teeth” (3:21)
That divide between form and content is perhaps most striking on “Summer Teeth” as the laid back feel of the music collides sharply with lines like “One summer a suicide / Another autumn a traveler’s guide / He hits snooze twice before he dies.” Of course that doesn’t make much sense, and here unlike “Tried And True” the chorus shrugs it off with “It’s just a dream he keeps having.” Also unlike the other version, “Summer Teeth” always keeps things in the realm of the third person, the “he” never becomes “I.” You could worry about what it all means, I guess, but it’s much easier just to kick back and relax.

11. “In A Future Age” (2:57)
“Summer Teeth” into this song is another of the transitions I kept from the original album. It’s got an elegiac feel that perfectly suits the end of the album, and it’s a pretty little song, but I couldn’t have it actually end things. Which is okay, since it didn’t really end the original Summerteeth either.

12. “Candyfloss” (2:57, hidden track)
I’m not a fan of hidden tracks as a practice, but “Candyfloss” is great whether it was originally listed on the back or not. It slowly fades into hearing as if it’s an afterthought, a great little romp complete with synthesized opera voices and a few borrowings from the Who. I know for me it always felt like the true end of the album. All I’m doing is making it official. And as lovely as “In A Future Age” is, having this warped little nugget sneak in to finish things off is much more in the spirit of my Summerteeth.

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2005-02-14
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