The first year Uncle Tupelo was playing around St. Louis, when Jeff Tweedy was working at Euclid Records in the Central West End, I was stunned to see his "best of the year" list posted on the wall: At the top were Slovenly's glorious, skewed We Shoot for the Moon and the Mekons' Rock 'n' Roll. Those were two of my favorite records, I remember thinking. Why wasn't he writing this kind of stuff with Uncle Tupelo? Later visits would find him listening to everything, and seldom was twang involved. When there was, it would more likely be Skip Spence or the Stanley Brothers than the Flying Burrito Brothers. Why, I wondered, so much twang in the music when it didn't seem to prevail in Tweedy's heart?
Answers to this question occupy some of the lyrical space on Wilco's third record, Summer Teeth: "Struggle to find your skin ... What you once were isn't what you want to be anymore ... Let's turn our prayers to outrageous dares and mark our page in a future age." This isn't the same young person who clumsily rhymed "gambling like a fiend" with "tables so green." Rather, this is a member of a band who accepted said outrageous dare, slipped themselves a mickey and swaggered into a studio with the ridiculous notion that a pigeonholed band can screw the expectations and have some fun, can make a record that recalls Big Star, Elvis Costello and Pet Sounds just for thrills, for shits and grins.
Weirdo sounds, layers of magic and vivid colors occupy nearly every empty space on Summer Teeth. Bells ting, timpanis bounce, organs tremble and horns moan. But fancy studio tricks and weirdo sounds are all the rage these days. It's pretty easy to rub a bunch of blush, mascara and lipstick on a plain face and make it pretty. Without a glowing personality underneath, though, you can never make it beautiful. And the reason for Summer Teeth's jaw-dropping success is picture-perfect songs with grand hooks, crazy breaks, zipping waves and a general, spectacular nonchalance masquerading as unflinching confidence. On Summer Teeth, Wilco insist on having it both ways: to act like they don't care while singing songs that indicate that perhaps they care a little too much.
Lyrically, Tweedy has remade himself. Gone are said clumsy rhymes and metaphors; in their place are a range of emotions: leaps of faith and a loose wordplay that makes mountains out of molehills; profound sadness and despair; a "heart full of holes" and an ashtray full of cigarette butts.
"I'm the boy with poetry power/I'm the boy who smells like flowers," Tweedy sings on one of the record's ending hidden tracks. It's a dazzling couplet on a record full of similarly remarkable gusts. I never doubted that I'd like most Wilco records; what staggers me is that I'd ever go ga-ga for one. Summer Teeth is ga-ga material.
-- Randall Roberts