Wilco – Summerteeth

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Jay Bennett. This album is really all about Jay Bennett for me. Bennett, who transformed Wilco from an alt-country band into a pop powerhouse (and more). Bennett, who was kicked out of Wilco. Bennett, who despite his immense talent, probably needed a foil or partner like Jeff Tweedy. Bennett, who died in 2009 as a result of an accidental prescription drug overdose. And yet, I can’t really justify my affection and admiration for Bennett. I found his non-Wilco work – Titanic Love Affair (inspired by a Billy Bragg lyric) and a couple of solo albums I owned at one point – to be fitfully appealing, and I don’t care for roughly ⅖ of his Wilco output. But the stuff I do like? It’s out of this world. The scenes from documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart that depict Bennett as an obsessive, minutiae-focused control freak actually endear him to me; his enthusiasm, creativity, focus, dedication, and talent – as instrumentalist, arranger, and studio whiz – are inspirational.

What I Think of This Album

People can rave about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot all they want; as far as I am concerned, this is Wilco’s masterpiece. At seventeen tracks and an hour of music, this almost qualifies as a double-album, but it never feels that way. You are instead cocooned in the lush, sumptuous, warm world that Bennet and Tweedy have created (the contributions of the other band members were reportedly quite reduced – Bennett even drummed on some of the songs). Reportedly they were both in bad shape, drug-wise during this time.

Many people speak of Tweedy’s lyrical growth here, and obviously this is head-and-shoulders above A.M., and he does offer up some nice abstract imagery, but there also some clunkers, and I honestly don’t get the fuss over “the ashtray says you’ve been up all night.” Anyway, most of the magic on this album is in the arrangements:  the bells on double-jointed opener “I Can’t Stand It,” as well as the little piano part at the end (I do like the “No love’s as random / As God’s love” lyric); the intricate orchestration on “She’s a Jar” – the woodwinds (keyboard) part, the faux-strings, some subtle fake horns, the clean harmonica from Tweedy, and a nice bass part (the “sleepy kisser” lyric is good); the descending piano line and moaning cello on “A Shot In the Arm,” not to mention the fucking TIMPANI, as well as the wavery synths, and the bass riff as the song works its way to a close; and the subtle organ and gentle backing vocals on “We’re Just Friends.”

There is also the analog synth line in “I’m Always In Love” that haunted Ric Ocasek’s dreams and the little piano part, plus the buried scream at the end (I always think the “you I swoon” line is “you asshole,” and I always will). Excellent drumming abounds on the sighing, handclapped Beatles-esque “Nothingsesvergonnastandinmyway(again)” – the alarm clock is a nice touch. Pet Sounds is the obvious touchstone for the shape-shifting “Pieholden Suite” (Bennett would later name his production studio after this song). The bass carries “How To Fight Loneliness,” but the organ plays a key role, and the keyboards at the end – sounding like backwards woodwinds – add an unusually appealing psychedelic touch. Similarly, the Moog creates the perfect pillow for the shuffling, impressionistic  “Via Chicago,” while the banjo is a welcome distraction; there is a guitar solo that comes from heaven and hell simultaneously, and the piano is gorgeous.

There is no lap steel credit for rambunctious “ELT,” but I refuse to believe that is a synth or keyboard. Brian Wilson would throw his piano into the ocean to have thought up the arrangement on panoramic lullaby “My Darling,” on which Coomer has a great drum part. There is a ‘70’s singer-songwriter vibe to “When You Wake Up Feeling Old,” which is the closest thing to a disposable song on this album. Bennett definitely played lap steel on the quasi-throwback title track, which sounds a little like the Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun”; I like the birdsong a lot. Ostensible closer “In a Future Age,” is a contemplative, folky number with some interesting sounds, but probably the second-worst song on the album. Hidden track “Candyfloss” (which is what Brits call cotton candy) is a rowdy and muscular rocker adorned with bells and a hilarious operatic vocal track. Finally, there is an alternate version of “A Shot In the Arm.”

It’s important to clarify that it’s not all about window dressing. These are excellent pop songs on their own. This was Wilco unafraid to be pretty and vulnerable and colorful. Wilco never made music this beautiful again. “You’ve changed / What you once were isn’t what you want to be / Anymore,” indeed.

Ephemera: Mitch Easter (Let’s Active) and Dave Trumfio (the Pulsars) were among the engineers on this album.

The Best Thing About This Album

Jay. Fucking. Bennett.

Release Date

March, 1999

The Cover Art

It took me a long time to figure this out, not that I ever paid that much attention to it. It appears to be someone blowing a bubble with gum (though the bubble is unusually large and gravity-defiant). The black and white doesn’t work for me and I hate the blue, as well as the way the title runs into the band name.

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