Friday, April 27, 2007

"How To Fight Loneliness" / Wilco

At this very moment a debate is probably raging on some message board somewhere about whether Wilco is better than Uncle Tupelo (Jeff Tweedy's earlier band) or Son Volt (the band fronted by Jay Farrar, Tweedy's Uncle Tupelo partner). Most likely, that argument will morph into another about whether Tweedy betrayed his roots to gain commercial success. Me, I can't get too worked up about it. I like them all; I like Tweedy's side project Golden Smog too. I suspect that being a full-time Wilco fan could be a demanding job, more than I'm ready to take on. But as far as the music goes, what's not to like?

I'm trying to remember now what first turned me on to Wilco. I think it was this number from their 1999 album Summerteeth -- was it on some indie movie soundtrack? If not, it should have been; it has just the sort of tentative, discontented moodiness that belongs in an indie movie. Maybe it's the laidback beat, or those ruminating chord progressions; could be that layered texture of the meandering piano against the soughing organ; or the odd bits of recorded melody played backwards, like sucked-back sighs. However they pulled it off, it's atmospheric as hell.

This is an I'm Lonely Song, but with a difference. Most I'm Lonely Songs are just Missing You songs in disguise, loaded up with romantic self-pity; this guy's loneliness may have started with romantic loss, but it's much more general by now. He's no longer bemoaning his own fate, simply offering fumbling advice on how to cope. It's a self-help manual for the social isolate: "How to fight loneliness / Smile all the time / Shine your teeth to meaningless / And sharpen them with lies." (Or as T. S. Eliot, the high priest of modernist anxiety, once put it, "There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.") Tweedy's listless vocal is anything but encouraging. He offers us two choices -- dumb conformity, or remaining in your hermit cave -- and it's not entirely clear which one he'd choose himself.

In verse two, Tweedy paints an even bleaker picture: "That's how you fight loneliness / You laugh at every joke / Drag your blanket blindly / Fill your heart with smoke." That line about the blanket makes me think of a lost little kid, clinging to his security blanket, and the image of the heart filled with smoke (as in "smoke and mirrors," no doubt) is simply haunting. I see something pathetically brave in all this. If you follow these easy instructions, you can just about convince yourself to settle for shallow social contact: "And the first thing that you want / Will be the last thing you'll ever need." (I think here also of the Death Cab for Cutie song, "The Sound of Settling.") Am I the only one who detects a whiff of longing here for that easy out?

It's funny how the jaded melancholy of this song works. Someone else (say, Bob Dylan) might have sung it with a cynical snarl, emphasizing words like "meaningless," "lies," "blindly," "smoke." Tweedy, though, shuffles through this with a weary diffidence that makes you wonder which way he's gonna go. It's like he's half closed-down already. Sure, that lying smile is a sell-out, but when you've been lonely enough for long enough...well, you don't have any energy left to take the high road. Talking himself into it, he repeats over and over, "Just smile all the time," his voice heaving hopefully upward on "smile", then slipping back down the scale. It's a pretty thin hope, but I find myself rooting for this guy. I can just picture him -- unshaven, hair tousled, shirttail out, eyes glazed -- I see guys like this on the streets every day. I'm rooting for all of them now.

How To Fight Loneliness sample


G12 said...

Well, Wilco ARE better than Son Volt, and at least as good as The Tupes!

Kicking Television is still the best live album of the 21st century!

BLTP said...

excellent music blog, re: Morrisey I think he is one of the few artists it's impossible to view out of context as his songs/image are all reflected in his upbringing in the North of England. That being said it's good that you can enjoy his work even if you didn't have to suffer the same stiffled childhood.

Dave K. said...

It stands to reason that me and G both hit on the sidebar note of whether Wilco is better than Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo :-) . Those other bands made some great music, but Wilco has an incredibly consistent body of excellent work that far surpasses the other 2. It was a worthy debate 5 years ago, but not a serious one today.

--Dave K.

Holly A Hughes said...

You guys crack me up. It's not a contest!! Let's just enjoy it all, ok?

Jeff said...

Yeah, can't we all just get along? ;-) Great post, Holly. I too love the way this contrasts less than hopeful lyrics with an almost excessively tuneful melody. And Tweedy's voice has never sounded more at home. BTW, the link at the bottom of the post was broken. Try this: http// and click on Sample Songs in the right column.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks, Jeff -- I've fixed the link. AND shined my teeth till meaningless.

James K said...

Some great solo-acoustic versions of this out on the net. Tweedys solo stuff is great too.

Great song.

Nice comments, thanks!