Jeff Tweedy

Together At Last

When I interviewed Jeff Tweedy about Sukierae, the 2014 album he recorded with his son under the name Tweedy, I couldn’t resist asking how he wrote some lines from one of his Wilco songs. They were from ‘Via Chicago’, on Summerteeth: “But the wind blew me back via Chicago/ In the middle of the night/ And all without fight/ At the crush of veils and starlight.” Whether it was the way “veils and starlight” seemed curiously redolent of Romantic poetry, or the sense that if veils and starlight were to be united, a “crush” would be the most apt noun, the lines had hung in my ears since I first heard them. Tweedy said: “It sounds like either an exercise that I would do where I think of a profession, like a firefighter, and think of all the action verbs that go with that, and then I put down a list of words that I like on the other side of the page and draw lines. The verbs are acting on nouns that you wouldn’t normally have them act on, so a crushing veil. Or it’s from a period where I would read with a highlighter all of the time, and then go back to a book that I finished and copy all of the things that I’ve highlighted in a way that makes something of a poem.”

As well as suggesting that looking for a simple interpretation of many of Tweedy’s songs may be something of a fool’s errand, his explanation gives a little insight into the ways his lyrics are constructed. And on Together At Last, a collection of solo acoustic versions of 11 songs by Wilco and his side projects, it’s the words that take prominence.

Tweedy’s songs touch on depression, addiction and love through lyrics that often feel opaque, but in the context of the song transform, shaped into meaning though untroubled by immediacy. ‘Muzzle Of Bees’, from the closing repetition of, “Half of it’s you, half of it’s me”, points towards being about a relationship. There’s a line about leaving a message on an answering machine, “assuming you love me/ And you know what that means”, which perhaps casts the couple under the strain of distance. Whatever the unease is, it’s set against a backdrop that’s brilliant in its imagistic turns, where the “sun gets passed, sea to sea/ Silently, and back to me/ With the breeze blown through/ Pushed up above the leaves”, and backed by a single, dexterous guitar part – here condensed from the multitude that appear on the original on 2004’s A Ghost Is Born – fingerpicking chords that alternately ring pensive and upbeat, matching the shifting tonality of the narrator’s mindset.

‘Via Chicago’ itself is filled with linguistic richness: a picture of hope as “a notebook full of white dry pages” sits alongside the kind of kinetic word collisions that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Gary Snyder poem (“crawling is screw faster lash/ I blow it with kisses”) and images – “crumbling ladder tears”, “a cracked door moon” – that feel complete in themselves. It’s no surprise that Tweedy’s talked about reading books purely “because the language is so fun to just absorb”.

As well as Wilco’s celebrated songs (‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’, ‘Ashes Of American Flags’), Together At Last contains some perhaps lesser-known choices, such as ‘Laminated Cat’, from Loose Fur’s excellent 2003 self-titled album. Tweedy’s words chart the experience of seasonal change, but dogged by something unexplained, all summed up in the vivid opening line: “Springtime comes and the leaves are back on the trees again/ Snipers are harder to see, my friends.” As throughout, the arrangement is a masterpiece of reduction: the circling synths and rolling drums on the original are transposed to pared-back guitars, intricately interlocked and giving no more than is necessary, much like Tweedy’s clear, unshowy voice.

Occasionally the songs are more direct, and these are a joy too. ‘Hummingbird’, also from A Ghost Is Born, follows a man whose self-appointed destiny is to become a memory, only one that’s somehow embellished, “floating fast” like the bird of the title. ‘Sky Blue Sky’, from the 2007 LP of the same name, closes the album, and tells the story of Tweedy returning to his Illinois hometown on Memorial Day to find it filled with “ricocheting” drunks and empty buildings, “windows broken and dreaming”, but redeems the situation with the refrain’s affirmation, “I survived, that’s good enough for now”.

What this amounts to is a collection that’s a good way in to the work of a songwriter whose output is three decades strong and a welcome addition to Tweedy’s discography in its own right. As anyone who has seen him perform solo live knows, these arrangements feel like wonderful flipsides to the Wilco coin; Together At Last now gives them to us as a studio-recorded document, the work of someone who has, to borrow his own phrase, become more than something of a poet.

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