Happy 20th Anniversary to Wilco’s third studio album Summerteeth, originally released March 9, 1999.
“I dreamed about killing you again last night / and it felt alright to me.”
Never has a song lyric stuck with me so effortlessly. Listening to other people’s dreams is famously uninteresting, yet every time I hear this line, I wonder. I try to make it real and question if it could be. Then I think of my own dreams, how I wish I could forget some, and how I usually forget most as soon as my eyes open.
It’s a perfect opening line. “Via Chicago” features Jay Bennett on Moog, banjo, tambourine, and piano, instruments put in place to cover up Jeff Tweedy spilling his exposed, weary heart. The song goes avant-garde and then the piano comes in for the bridge. Time slows down and I feel every missing piece of Jay Bennett.
Wilco’s third LP Summerteeth turns 20 this week. A lot sits underneath the record, so let’s dig.
Summerteeth marks when Tweedy started writing down his lyrics. Inspired to become a better songwriter, he started reading 20th century literature (“Via Chicago” is a murder ballad inspired by Henry Miller). You can hear his songs turn on this album from straightforward short stories to puzzles. It’s here where he started using stranger vocabulary with weird word marriages on purpose to make you wonder how could someone be buried alive in a fireworks display?
Alternative country is a genre Tweedy’s first band Uncle Tupelo pioneered in the early ‘90s and he took further with Wilco, while groups like Old 97’s and Drive-By Truckers would continue to experiment with it through the end of the decade. Sonically, Summerteeth is the third in the band’s well-practiced sounds of twang and swing after 1996’s double album Being There and their debut, A.M., from the year before. Turn to “ELT,” “Pieholden Suite,” and Summerteeth album opener “Can’t Stand It”—recorded specifically to be a radio hit—for immediate alt-country.
But really, it’s everywhere. It’s in the twinkle of the piano on “My Darling” and the alternative is in the electricity on the lead riffs into “I’m Always In Love.” Between it, Wilco is pop with background vocals. But they add to it with the trumpet, brushes on the drums, and little moments of silence, a pause as breath, between chorus and verse.
Among the aforementioned, Bennett is credited with lap steel guitar, tiple—a smaller version of a classical guitar—claps, baritone guitar, an electric organ called a farfisa, a slide bass, bells, and more. Bennett even dubbed over bass and drum parts on several tracks alienating bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer, who played drums alongside Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo and would leave Wilco after Summerteeth in 2001. It’s also the first Wilco album for which the recording software Pro Tools was used to dub over already recorded tracks. Bennett brought destruction with him compared to Tweedy’s instinct for structure in songwriting.
They built and expanded together and fed off each other’s differences. Tweedy was trying to kick his painkiller habit while Bennett was using more and more during recording. Bennett passed in 2009, an early loss due to an overdose of the drug fentanyl. He was using an off-brand patch prior to needing hip replacement surgery his insurance wouldn't cover because it was a pre-existing condition. Addiction and their awareness of it come alive on “How To Fight Loneliness” the most isolating track: “the first thing you ever want / is the last thing you ever need.”
Tweedy’s acoustic guitar is full and shifts from center to side on the track. Bennett on keys is a flicker that keeps catching your eye. It has that backward looping sound, if only to foreshadow what was ahead for the group. “Just smile all the time,” they all sing on the chorus. You can almost hear Jeff and Jay nodding to one another. It’s a solitary song even with the “doo-doo-doot” sing along. Play it alone on your headphones on a crowded street or crosstown bus and find yourself craving someone else.
Summerteeth is just a hair over sixty minutes. The record has a gravity to it, lifting listeners up and pushing us back down, sometimes even below the surface. “23 Seconds of Silence” was originally a hidden track. It sits between “In A Future Age” and “Candyfloss” on streaming platforms and plays like a trick, bouncing us back into sound, a surprise because the record isn’t over yet.
The title track “Summer Teeth” is an uplifting inflection emphasizing their folk manner as our narrator “makes his supper and eats it alone.” The birds chirp and water flows by in the background and for a second we forget “it’s just a dream / and it doesn’t seem to mean anything.”
Its parallel opposite is “She’s A Jar,” infamously about Tweedy’s wife Sue Miller. Their marriage was reportedly going through a rough patch at the time while Tweedy was constantly away. Miller was unhappy with “she begs me not to hit her,” a lyric so personal and fraught it’s like we’re accidentally overhearing a whispered conversation. Tweedy’s willingness to broadcast his hopelessness while simultaneously accepting it is what compels Wilco records, and has for more than 20 years.
Tweedy has an effortless ability to zoom in on tiny bits of life and pull back out to grasp the biggest feeling. How did we get here, these songs ask. To listen to a Wilco record is to wonder aloud. “When You Wake Up Feeling Old” was written by a 32-year-old Tweedy and features Bennett on a toy harp, if only to wink at us.
I’ve loved Wilco for a long time and have traveled across many a state line to see them. All of their records have a place at my table and after reading Tweedy’s best-selling memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), I’ve found new meaning in their songs and in the stories behind his approach to creativity. His life and output have been tied to his sobriety since he quit drinking at 23, his battle with painkillers, and a life dictated by chronic migraines, anxiety, and panic attacks.
On Summerteeth, Bennett provided a balance by coloring in Tweedy’s harsh lines with an orchestra of instruments. But the irony is the fact that Summerteeth is sonically straightforward compared to what Wilco would put out later during much more stable band life.
Wilco’s lineup has changed a lot in the last two decades, but their ethos remains the same. It was on Being There when they first started investigating how to twist a sound. Each record in their catalog is a veer in a new direction, some LPs providing many exits all at once. My point is: Wilco consistently sounds like themselves while they keep turning.
For me it’s a hunger I have that Tweedy is always able to satisfy—perhaps because he knows craving better than any modern songwriter. “Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm,” he sings, sometimes like a question, but also as a statement. Then, his inflection goes up and becomes something else. I’m satisfied when the timpani thunders between the piano as his lines flirt with me: “We fell in love / in the key of see / we walked along / down by the sea / you followed me down / the neck to D / and fell again / into the sea.”
Nothing has ever stood in Jeff Tweedy’s way—not bandmates, substances, love, family, addiction, the road, or record companies. He remains true to himself and to the network he’s surrounded himself with. Wilco is a consistency in his life, which is key for recovery and creativity. Summerteeth is a record of a man and a band in progress, further proof of Wilco’s understated hard work.