Several moons ago—in 2004, to be precise—singer/songwriter and Wilco bandleader Jeff Tweedy dealt a decisive blow to the twin demons of anxiety and addiction that had long haunted him. Perhaps no coincidence, it didn’t take long after that for friction to disappear (at least outwardly) from Wilco’s interpersonal dynamic. For better or worse, the band’s music has sounded more comfortable ever since, even amidst the spasms of noise that frequently strafe Wilco songs to this day.
Tweedy has often derided the notion that art benefits from inner turmoil, but it’s not like you can make a strong case against that notion when you compare Wilco’s back-catalog classics against the band’s latter-day output. And it would appear that he still harbors some self-consciousness about the way that getting settled has impacted his creativity: On his solo album from last year, WARM, he sang, “I leave behind a trail of songs / From the darkest gloom to the brightest sun / I’ve lost my way, but it’s hard to say / What I’ve been through should matter to you.”
With his new album WARMER, originally a Record Store Day release and a companion to WARM that was recorded at the same time but also meant to function as a standalone album in its own right, Tweedy might finally be proving that it shouldn’t matter after all. Although he still speaks at length about past troubles in interviews (and disclosed all manner of gory details in his autobiography, also from last year), Tweedy has somehow managed to join that small club of artists whose muse is actually served—not diminished—by finding peace. By definition, a band (and Wilco in particular) requires a certain level of push-pull tension to produce vital art. Apparently that’s not the case when Tweedy is left to his own devices to make music with his son Spencer on drums.
Going all the way back to 1996’s career-defining sophomore opus Being There, Wilco’s tendency to warp, deconstruct, and even outright destroy the core foundation of a song became one of the Chicago band’s calling cards. On the other hand, the ease of Jeff and Spencer Tweedy’s process allows the listener entry to the music the way a screen door might entice you into a relative’s kitchen that’s filling with the aroma of a meal simmering on the stove. In other words, the mostly barebones, demo-like arrangements on WARM and WARMER (and, to a lesser extent, 2014’s comparatively more post-production-heavy Sukirae) offer a straight path to the heart of the songs, even as they invite listeners to imagine all sorts of embellishments that aren’t there, i.e.: touches that Tweedy and his mad-scientist laboratory assistants in Wilco are prone to adding.
In the chorus section of WARMER’s opening track “Orphan,” Tweedy sings the lines “I am an or-phan / Bring them back to me / I will for-give them / Let them love me again” in a near-whisper. The syllables descend as softly as a trickle of water over a stone in a shallow brook. Nevertheless, the song is sure to put a lump in your throat whether or not you can even relate to the experience of losing of your parents. Barely a minute and a half in, WARMER boldly asserts itself as its own work and quietly lands Tweedy a spot on the list of the most effortless songwriters we’ve ever known. Like many songs on WARMER, “Orphan” shows us just how much Tweedy is capable of communicating via the most spare ingredients: a strumming acoustic, faint electric-guitar swells, the soft thud of a kick drum, a snare, and a vocal melody so simple and catchy it could have been lifted from a church hymn or a nursery rhyme..
Author George Saunders, who wrote the liner notes for both WARM and WARMER, compares Tweedy to iconic writers like Toni Morrison and David Foster Wallace. It might be more apt to compare him to Your Friendly Uncle at the Fourth of July barbecue, happily grilling away with iced tea in hand, button-down shirt halfway unbuttoned and floppy hat to block out the sun. Saunders argues that the artist’s job is to console. Indeed, the thought of losing one’s parents, not to mention the grief and disorientation that ensue, is enough to terrify even the most hardy soul. But WARMER leaves you feeling like you don’t actually need consolation in spite of its turns into seemingly heavy subjects like mortality, memory, regret and societal discord. Tweedy, who can actually come across as somewhat unctuous when he has the podium to speak, takes on a reassuring presence on record because of his ability to make any subject palatable, something that has become second nature by this point.
Of course, there are similarities between WARM and WARMER. Like its predecessor, WARMER includes its share of country-esque jangle in the form of tunes like “...and Then You Cut It in Half,” “Ten Sentence” and “Every Head”—songs that wouldn’t have necessarily sounded out of place on Wilco’s 1995 debut A.M. Overall, though, WARMER leans away from upbeat Americana-style pop, adhering instead to a predominantly downtempo, backporch-folk kind of feel that makes for a unity that WARM doesn’t quite achieve. Songs like “Sick Server” and “Landscape” barely seem to move, crawling at a lullaby-like snail’s pace as they reveal the kinds of wistful thoughts one might entertain while rocking oneself to sleep on a hammock and reflecting on life in a way that offers little resolution before the dreams start to kick in.
“Time passes slow / before it goes too fast,” Tweedy croons on “Sick Server,” “Dream with me darling / Now the moment has passed.” Still, WARMER doesn’t exactly present itself as an exercise in melancholy. On “Family Ghost,” for example, an eerie, siren-like guitar wail hovers over a loping groove that conveys a sense of celebration regardless of the song’s lyrical outlook. (Picture a cross between T. Rex and The Black Crowes, only slowed down from a stomp to a senior citizen’s unhurried gait.) And then there are the myriad of images that Tweedy offers with a twinkle in his voice that renders them downright pleasant, whatever the context, such as when he sings about “driving around downtown Ohio” on “Ten Sentences.” It’s a spare country-folk number that sounds sprightly alongside the rest of WARMER but could easily have ended up as the slowest tune on another album.
Jeff Tweedy has referenced the eternal imagery of summer in America before—from the outdoor summer concerts of Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer” to the Memorial Day parade that inspired the title track from Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky to the fireworks displays that light up the night sky of “I Know What It’s Like” from WARM. The relaxed, sleepy-eyed disposition of WARMER (perfect for a holiday weekend, in fact) belies the shades of decay that flit by in the periphery of Tweedy’s lyrics: an abandoned shopping cart “left by the side of the road,” “cities under siege,” the interstate highway as a barrier and symbol for disunity etc.—fraying edges of verses that pass so casually that they’re easy to miss. So is the decades’ worth of effort and seasoning that got Tweedy to the point where he could make songwriting look so simple when it actually isn’t, even for the majority of artists who spend a lifetime trying. Of course it isn’t, but WARMER will have you fooled. With it, Tweedy has given us an example of easy listening in the most powerful sense.