In retrospect: Wilco’s 1999 epic, Summerteeth

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Following on from last year’s Ode to Joy, November sees Wilco turn the wheel of time all the way back to 1999 with a reissue of their third LP, the formative Summerteeth. The alt-country rock band hail from Chicago and are led by songwriter extraordinaire Jeff Tweedy. With the reissue imminent, now seems an apt time to review one of their most beloved albums.

Wilco’s discography in itself is something of a chronicle of their development, documenting fluxes in style and influence over the course of two prolific decades. Sandwiched between their nascent alt-country years and their mid-2000s slide toward softer rock lies a four-year span of peak Wilco. Along with 1998’s folk collaboration with Billy Bragg, Mermaid Avenue, and 2004’s Grammy-winning A Ghost Is Born, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot saw the inception of bona-fide Wilco. This iteration is sprawling and chaotic yet highly fastidious, raw yet heart-warming (as well as achieving them near idolisation from critics and fans alike, scoring perfect tens from both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone and reaching 13 on the Billboard 200).

These were the Wilco golden years, and Summerteeth lay at the forefront. This reissue will present the longer serving of their fanbase with a blast from the past. Its polished, pop-rock sound will doubtless take many a middle-aged ear back to the turn of the millennium, and memories of carefree summers past. “I miss the innocence I’ve known,” sings Tweedy on Yankee Hotel, “Playin’ Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.” This reissue will give listeners all the flashbacks plus a little bit more. The inclusion of recordings from their 1999 Boulder concert will be particularly anticipated, given the band’s famously scintillating live performances.

In his memoir, Tweedy refers to the record as “wall to wall our idea of bubble-gum pop music.” It certainly demonstrates the studio sheen of easily one of Wilco’s most accessible albums, acting as a springboard toward their more dissonant and experimental work. But by no means does it pander. It merely displays the triumphant sound of a band coming into its own. Irresistibly catchy hooks, rich vocal harmonies, lush studio production, and the late Jay Bennett’s multi-instrumentalism make the album an instantly enjoyable experience.

As with all things Wilco, however, some of the album’s true beauty lies in its paradoxes. Tweedy was, at the time, suffering from severe addiction problems, and experiencing his fair share of marriage difficulties too. This, in turn, took form in his songs, many of which demonstrate Wilco at their most lyrically melancholic and regretful. The works of 20th century authors such as Henry Miller and William Gass directly informed songs such as the poignantly tender ‘She’s a Jar.’ “She’s a jar / with a heavy lid ,” sings Tweedy, “…a pretty war / with feelings hid / you know she begs me not to hit her.”

Indeed, such rawness was a source of tension between Tweedy and his wife, who was willing to give him creative license despite this lack of truth. One of the album’s most criminally underrated moments occurs halfway through ‘Pieholden Suite’, which seems to wistfully lament the loss of young and innocent love. “In the beginning, we close our eyes / whenever we kissed we were surprised / to find so much inside,” Tweedy sings, and then Bennett’s blissfully bittersweet synth tones come in to transport the listener.

Summerteeth is a definitive album in Wilco’s discography, one in which they came into their own by combining their archetypically ruminative voice with a sound which was, and still is, accessible, catchy and captivating. It has all the slack rocker comfort of Pavement, and the lyrical sincerity and pristine aesthetic of the Beach Boys. Whilst perpetually in the shadow of its adored successor, this album is nonetheless a prime example of the ability of Tweedy and Co. to entertain and provoke.

Image: Pieter Morlion via Flickr