Favorites: Wilco’s Summerteeth

Wilco has become, over the past twenty or so years, one of my absolute favorite bands. I first heard about them in a weird way: Glen Phillips (of Toad the Wet Sprocket fame) name dropped them in a song, which got me wondering about them. Long story short, I started with Summerteeth and never looked back.

Summerteeth was the third Wilco album. It came out originally in 1999, following the double album Being There. It’s a more refined album than Being There or their debut, A.M., with more organs, pianos, and odd little blips and quirks that presaged what was to come on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born.

The album kicks off with “Can’t Stand It,” which features keyboards, bells, and chugging guitars. “It’s all beginning/To feel like it’s ending,” Jeff Tweedy sings. At one point, he essentially howls, leading into a great instrumental break. From there, things slow down with “She’s a Jar,” a meditative, melodic tune which features a beautiful harmonica solo. “A Shot in the Arm” picks up the pace, starting off with a squall of static and noise and featuring heavily-strummed acoustic guitar.

Other standout tracks include “How to Fight Loneliness,” a song that encourages the listener to “Just smile all the time,” but the admonition feels rather hollow, as if the singer doesn’t quite believe that’s really the best way to fight loneliness. “When You Wake Up Feeling Old” is a lovely tune reminiscent of the Beatles’ “When I’m 64” in theme and general tone.

The title track is one of the best songs on the album. “It’s just a dream he keeps having/And it doesn’t seem to mean anything,” Tweedy sings over an upbeat tune, and the bird chirping and chorused “Oohs” and “Aahs” really make the song for me, as does the jangly, Byrdsy guitar figure played throughout.

The album closes with “In a Future Age,” a song that meditates on things ending and all falling to entropy. “Some trees with bend/And some will fall/But then again/So will us all.” The lyrics are simple, but very evocative and moving. Tweedy’s vocals are pitch-perfect for the song, and it rounds out the album in the best way possible.

Following “In a Future Age,” there are two songs that act as something of a coda: “Candyfloss,” a sugary ditty that features keyboards quite heavily, and an alternate version of “A Shot in the Arm.” Both are excellent and a wonderful way to actually finish out the album.

Ultimately, Summerteeth reflects Wilco growing in confidence and trying new things. The band shows growth and the album predicts the strange left turn their next couple of albums would take. I highly recommend it as a starting point for exploring Wilco’s discography. You could do far worse than this particular album.

The band has actually posted the entire album on Youtube. You can find it here.

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