The Best Albums of My Life #21: Summerteeth

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There was a three-year span when I was in college where I was a single dude who pretty much thought I was gonna be a single dude for a very long time.  That period, starting as it did with a breakup, did not begin very well for me. It ended brilliantly, and I attribute it to two key factors: 1) I had (and still have) amazing friends and 2) I found Wilco.

The first Wilco album I heard was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot because I saw trailers for I Am Trying to Break Your Heart and was smitten deeply with any band who could so brazenly flip off their label and fight to put out the album they wanted to put out (if you’ve seen the movie, you know that Wilco was dropped by a subsidiary of AOL-Time Warner and then later picked up by Nonesuch, a subsidiary of the same. This, to me, is as funny as a televangelist getting busted for snorting meth off a male prostitute’s ass – in other words, it’s fucking hilarious). The fact that the music was a-fucking-mazing didn’t hurt. The second Wilco album I heard was Summerteeth and, in some ways, though I still like YHF better, Summerteeth is the album that I really identify with that three year period of loneliness, drinking, smoking too much, and all the things you do when you’re thinking you’re gonna be alone for the rest of your life. (Note: I’m not being emo here, nor was I at the time: for a while, yeah, I was heartbroken, but I think I can provide witnesses to verify that I was never a whiny bitch about it) In some way, for me, Summerteeth (and Wilco’s music in general) was like a guidebook for how to wear loneliness well.

Much of Summerteeth deals with the downside of love, or love coming to an end, although there are moments of sweetness like “We’re Just Friends,” (a song I listened to about five times in a row the night I got together with the girl that ended my three year drought – she’s my fiance now. I was especially enamored, that evening, of the lines “make some coffee/ to hold me up”) and “Pieholden Suite”. But the album starts with “Can’t Stand It,” where Jeff Tweedy sings “no love’s as random/ as God’s love/ I can’t stand it” (the song also fades out on a jaunty refrain of “Your prayers/ will never/ be answered again”, which pretty much sums up how I felt at the time) and only gets darker, lyrically. “Via Chicago” opens with one of my ten favorite opening lines ever: “I dreamed about killing you again last night/ and it felt all right to me” and “ELT” asks, “Oh, what have I been missing/ wishing that you were dead?”, although Tweedy somewhat apologizes a line later by saying, “I didn’t mean to be so disturbing/ so far from home.” The real trick here is that many of the songs are set against a bouncy, pop-savvy musical background, thanks in no small part to the talents of the late Mr. Jay Bennett.

The combination of the catchy music and dark lyrics make Summerteeth one of the best breakup albums of all time, but they also make it something that transcends that narrow purpose. Years later, in a happy relationship and planning a wedding, I can still listen to Summerteeth and enjoy its musical riches without needing it to drown my sorrows (now, if Tweedy and company could write an album that helps me deal with shitty L.A. people who smack into your car in the middle of the night, flee the scene, have no insurance, and the slow-as-molasses garage that takes forever and fucking day to fix said smashed car, that would be an album would probably be my musical crutch du jour). There might be a lesson in there to the emo kids in the audience – it’s great for you to express your heartache and frustration ‘n’ shit, but you might (maybe) wanna give a thought to the quality of the music you’re making and how it’s gonna sound years from now when you’re all growed up and not in the same place personally. What’s great about Summerteeth is that it is a mighty chronicle of romance cracking up on the rocks, but it’s also so melodically gorgeous that it can still be a satisfying listen for people who aren’t sadsacks.

This is not to deny the power of albums or bands that you listen to only for specific moods or times in you life – after I stumbled on Wilco’s music, there was hardly a party at my house that didn’t end with me either listening to their stuff on my computer or playing it on my guitar (when I found the Tweedy song “Nothing” from Uncle Tupelo’s second album, I was also deeply smitten – the chorus: “Don’t/ call it nothing/ it might be all/ we’ll ever have”) and the music served as a balm against my loneliness and generally feelings of inadequacy when it came to the opposite sex. Not gonna lie, I spent a good deal of those three years up my own ass about being lonely but when I finally made it out to the light of day, Summerteeth was still there for me in all its busted-ass glory. But I promise we’re just friends.

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