Wilco: I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

one. This is not a joke so please stop smiling

Most music criticism is, to some extent, speculative fiction. Just as we don’t walk around qualifying our sentences in everyday speech with “but that’s just my opinion”, we don’t, when writing about the story of an album or a song or an artist write “but then, that’s just what I think”. I hope and believe that in both cases, though, we know what’s going on. We know that these things are just our opinions.

I mean, think about it; ever since I was old enough to start wanting to date, I’ve been aware (painfully at times) of how easy it is to build up in your head, from conversations and looks and other clues you find or make up, a picture of a person. This picture may conform utterly to all the details you know, may make perfect sense, and it may be completely wrong. Witness every single guy on the planet who has thought the other party was interested. If we can do that with people we are close to, if in some cases we even do that with family and loved ones, how is the poor writer to avoid doing the same thing with their subject?

I have listened to music where I am convinced there is a narrative running through it, autobiographical or partly so or fully invented, but I’m far past thinking I’m somehow “right” in my guesses, that I alone have correctly divined the true inner mental state of my favourite artists. Of course, if you can construct a compelling and rewarding narrative from an album which the author(s) never intended, does that make it any less real or useful?

To compound the problem, the more I write and the more creative people I meet, the more I realize we’re all just using the same tricks, moments genuine inspiration and talent held together with the mortar of stuff that “just sounds good” or the like. We try to extract myths from art, and from music in particular, and sometimes even from the people making the music. And all the while, they are to some extent trying to create some sort of myth. Things get muddled.

Two. I want to glide through those brown eyes dreaming

Wilco’s auteur Jeff Tweedy is either one of the more astute creators of a personal myth, or just an unlucky bastard. Between the label struggles, the migraines, the personnel strife, the documentaries, the critical acclaim, the painkiller addiction and the cryptic, possibly autobiographical lyrics, it’s become almost tantalizing to listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the upcoming A Ghost Is Born and try to imagine the songs’ intersection with Tweedy’s life.

“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” is the first song on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and like much of the album, the straightforward title conceals greater depths. It got mentioned in reviews for being almost seven minutes long and self-consciously ‘difficult’ and very definitely not living up to the alt-country tag often used to describe Wilco and Tweedy. The percussion throughout goes from steady to almost random, as does the piano (although the point at 4:13 where the piano breaks in with rich, almost house-y chords is one of utter beauty, consonance intruding on dissonance). Throughout the very back of the track is a steady organ or keyboard drone which actually isn’t very audible unless you focus on it. Tweedy mopes through most of the lines as he tends to before shouting the last verse, seemingly from down the hall. More random plinks and plonks and rising static follow.

As an opening, it’s a bravura one, and by now I’ve listened to it often enough that I can’t really understand the ‘difficult’ tags—it sounds like pure pop to me. If you listen to anything enough, your ear will conform to it. There is a deep, almost unconscious sadness to “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, starting with the fact that surely the title is the most obvious false statement in pop since 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”. If a cynic is nothing but a romantic with crushed dreams, then “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” might be the sound of a romantic trying to grasp cynicism as a defense mechanism, and simultaneously succeeding and failing.

Three. What was I thinking when I let go of you

Jeff Tweedy is a broken poet. “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” is the sound of the world crushing him to bits. It, and all of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is the chronicle of a man who cannot come to terms with his world, who struggles to reconcile his interior and exterior realities but cannot make them fit. In few other recent songs has the singer sounded so palpably incapable of dealing with humanity yet determined to try anyway.

When Tweedy sings “You were so right when you said I’d been drinking” it’s with a curious mixture of intoxicated pride and rueful shame. Most of the lyrics bear out the drinking charge, but when Tweedy decides to “assassin down the avenue” it makes a certain sense. He’s trying to tell us how it feels to him to exist, but we can’t understand, not really.

Tweedy keeps doubling back on himself, contradicting his own claims and veering from a song of lost love to something darker, more incomprehensible and more unsettling. His disconnection from the world is also a disconnection from some Other, the same of whom at the end of the album he says “I’ve got reservations / About so many things / But not about you”; the truly horrific aspect to “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” is that the one person he can truly trust and communicate with is gone. Tweedy might as well be talking to himself. Probably the key couplet to the whole thing is “ I always thought that if I held you tightly / You'd always love me like you did back then”; the knowing self-deception in Tweedy’s delivery speaks volumes.

But the Moment doesn’t occur until after Tweedy is finished singing his song, after the light guitar scree kicks up, in fact not until there’s a mere twenty or so seconds left in the song. Suddenly a recorded Tweedy and a muffled acoustic pop into the mix and Tweedy croaks out “Loves you / I’m the man that loves you”, and then the guitar shuffles for a second more and the song dies in a piercing tone.

“I’m The Man That Loves You” is the most straightforward, uncomplicated love song on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (albeit not without its own problems, psychologically), but when Tweedy sings the refrain there he sounds at least mostly happy; it’s an affirmation. Maybe she doesn’t get it yet, but she will. When the lines are put here (and I think after careful listening that it’s the same performance, just out of context and maybe tweaked a little), he sounds desperate, cracked up and on the verge of collapse. His worlds are falling together, and he can’t even preserve the smallest happiness.

Crucially, of course, that final pronouncement also finally puts the lie to Tweedy’s flimsy protestations of cruelty. “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” is the cold façade Tweedy erects at the gate of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (witness the immediate and startling contrast between its end and the warm multiple acoustic guitars of “Kamera”), but his defenses do not even last the song. Instead, his heart winds up on his sleeve. And despite the possible cost to him, it’s what saves “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from mere art-rock intellectualism and turns them into something rarer, more fragile and infinitely more precious.

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-05-13
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