Review Summary: A king-sized slice of all things Wilco.
What is it about Wilco? It’s not just critical acclamation that says they’re good – the boundaries of their appeal are limitless, winning praise from the vast majority that hear their work. Nobody seems to able to put this band down, or wants to either. It begs the question - what makes them so damnably good at what they do? Whatever the answer is, it’s bound to be in vast quantities in ‘Summerteeth’, if only because it is itself a vast album. Sure enough, as a returner I soon caught whiff of that familiar something working away.
Yes, it’s recognisable instantly – the band’s trademark of having things not quite as they should be. Infectious, likeable harmonies sit side by side with unexpectedly sinister lyrics; the catchiest of bass hooks and piano flurries gets us jiving and ultimately singing to sentiments like “Your prayers will never be answered again”. But Wilco know that if the instrumentation were to reflect the depressive tone of the songwriting itself, nobody would be interested. Likewise, ‘In A Jar’ is a desperately sad song lost in a dreamland of strings and woodwinds warbling in and out of synth, breaking into harmonica birdsong, somehow joyful and melancholic at the same time – as birdsong is. So beautiful is this setting, it’s heartbreaking to hear “I believe it’s just because/Daddy’s payday is not enough”. Wilco magically recreate the emotion of the lyrics, and the contrast with this touching beauty brings out the true poignancy. This was, of course, intentional – they are the masters of making music have the desired affect. But they take the backdoor not just for the sake of novelty or creativity, but because they know instinctively that it’s the most effective route to their audiences emotions.
So they’ve proved they know the most effective way to pull off one trick. Having mastered this one forte, they move onto their next – juggling two tricks at the same time. ‘Summerteeth’ also exemplifies their ability to create a dangerously catchy tune that gleams with fantastic musicianship; the ever evolving ‘A Shot In The Arm’, morphing from a piano-driven number to a fuzzing and lively noise, as if the ambience was prodded awake by the driving and hooky bass jig; the folksy feel of the harmonic country-fare fun in ‘Nothing’severgonnastandinmywayagain’; and the crowning jewel of them all, the unashamedly goodtime, teenage-thrills vibes and jives that courses through every strum, kick and high-pitched squeal of ‘I’m Always in Love’. The multiplicity of ways that we can be made to tap our toes, sing along and feel good is to be ogled at – and once again, Wilco are the masters of everything they turn their hand to. By no means does it stick in your head because it’s simple – the remarkable depth of harmony and instrumentation is just as much part of the effervescence (which is what makes it catchy) as the lyrics are. In a parallel to the music, the lyrics stay delightfully sharp; the listener remembers them not only for the sing-along appeal, but also their clever, quick ingenuity, certainly paid no hinderence by refusing to be overly poppy. Feel good, finger-snapping tunes of the breed only they can deliver are what put the Summer in ‘Summerteeth’.
The beautiful contrast has been separated, and Wilco have secured themselves as kings of the upbeat – now, they look to conquer it’s now detached, darker relative. It’s now time to put the Teeth in ‘Summerteeth’. Just as they know they can make the catchy even catchier by backing it up with their pick of fantastic musicianship, so they can exacerbate the ominous by coupling it with something unusual (though nothing so much so for the sake of novelty). ‘Via Chicago’ begins as an unassuming, if deeply chilling (“I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me” – the vocals go undisguised too) acoustic folk song. Then it gets eerie – it gets all ‘Wilco’. We barely notice the creeping ambience that begins to take hold; piercing wind sounds, occasionally absent, gradually gain volume; dirty electric chords squeal, but quietly, reservedly; a breakdown in drumbeat signals the disintegration of most harmony; a fleeting piano attempts to hold it together. The restraints are let off as the song draws to a close, prodigiously collapsing in on itself, before the fading guitar screech softly plays us out. It’s the very evocation of the mental breakdown into depression. The lifelike sensations it send through the body are haunting, genuinely unnerving, and leave the listener a bit breathless. Once again, Wilco get inside our heads and move us from the inside out.
Not every track is a standout in itself, however. But this, in fact, contributes much to the overall laid-back feel of ‘Summerteeth’. Numbers that don’t quite grab you completely, like ‘When You Wake Up Feeling Old’, ‘How To Fight Loneliness’ – there are a few of them – while largely unremarkable in the shadow of the aforementioned highlights, do have their very own important role to play, one which means that they can’t be written off as mere filler. They’re all in the summertime vein, carry over elements from other songs and have a familiarity that builds up a personality in the album. None of them are poor, by any means. They just don’t pass much comment other than to keep the toe tapping and to stretch out like sunny afternoons among uncut grass that could last for ever; the ones you don’t tire of and never want to end. All in all, it’s charming while remaining unobtrusive and gives the album consistency and a sense of completeness. Perhaps the only exception to this rule is the title track, a bouncy number that skips along with a clean-pick electric, once again a betrayal of the lyrics, their ominous nature practically going unnoticed in the summer air, with an unexpected synth spree to keep us on our toes, ending with the sound of birds singing and a few final stringpicks, like a giggling afterthought. It is little more standout than others in the category of atmosphere-defining, which its carefree nature dutifully contributes to. ‘Summerteeth’ is an accurate metaphor for the album it shares a titles with – the deceitful and insidious caked expertly with innocent delight.
Wilco have been called a ‘critics band’, and perhaps there is some truth in that. As English buffs can unpick the subtleties of Shakespeare’s work and try to guess at why it’s so brilliant, so they too can dissect the ins and outs of what makes Wilco, Wilco. I suppose I’ve done a similar thing here – taken the cogs out of the clockwork of the album and try to say which one does what. But to strip it down to mechanics would do an injustice to this album, and what’s more, it would be inaccurate. What really makes ‘Summerteeth’ tick is a generous sprinkling of addictive Wilco magic.