Closing the door on their alt-country past with exuberant pop tendencies
Having broken open the Wilco mold on 1996′s Being There, Jeff Tweedy went all-in with the exuberant pop tendencies of his new compatriot Jay Bennett on Summerteeth. Perhaps because the band’s 1998 collaboration with Billy Bragg on the Woody Guthrie project Mermaid Avenue had played up their roots-folk inclinations, they seemed eager to push in an entirely different direction on this 1999 disc, which largely closed the door on their alt-country/Uncle Tupelo past. Fiddle and pedal steel are supplanted by keyboards and synthesizer; most of the tunes are Tweedy/Bennett co-writes, with bassist John Stirratt also having a hand in a few. Buoyant choruses abound, from “A Shot In The Arm” to “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway” to “ELT.” They pull out all the stops on “Pieholden Suite,” a Jimmy Webb-esque tour de force complete with horns and synthesized strings. But the album’s heart is “Via Chicago,” an elusive, swirling odyssey of melody and noise that feeds off the creative energy of the band’s adopted hometown. Not everything is so aggressively modern: “When You Wake Up Feeling Old” is a jaunty throwback that might have fit well musically on the Mermaid album, while the bonus track “Candyfloss” has a carnival-calliope charm. Viewed in context with Wilco’s oeuvre, Summerteeth could be considered the band’s Revolver: a pop-phase pinnacle, with a full-scale game-changer looming just over the horizon.