Jeff Tweedy’s War on Clarity

Happy Wilco Wednesday!

If you don’t listen to the SongExploder podcast, you’re missing out.  It’s a goldmine for music geeks to listen in on the process of creating music.  It’s a view into the creative process, as well as cool way to hear isolated parts of songs you may miss.  If you’re a Wilco fan, then the episode on Magnetized is a must listen.  In it, Jeff Tweedy talks about his song writing process, which is pretty weird.

Essentially, once the non-lyrical part of a song is written, Jeff listens to the song and sort grunts and mumbles along to it until eventually, words start to form.  From there, Jeff tries to isolate the words into phrases.  Sometimes he forms complete sentences out of it, sometimes just random words, all trying to express what he subconsciously is thinking about.  Tweedy feels as though if his ego guides the song writing process, it won’t work, and the only way to remove his ego, is to remove control.  For Tweedy, it’s about trying to isolate an emotion more than saying something concrete.  If you listen to a lot of Wilco, then it becomes pretty obvious when he uses this process.  Tweedy isn’t much of a songwriter when he’s trying to say something straightforward and clear.  Songs like “Hate it Here” and “What Light” are so on-the-nose that it’s kind of cheesy.  But when Tweedy consciously tries not to be specific, you get songs like “Jesus Etc.” “Cold Slope” or “I Might”: songs that seem to express a feeling, even though their lyrics make almost no sense.  Consider the following:

“I am an American, aquarium drinker.
I assassin down the avenue.”

“Your snow-cone, and it’s piss and blood
It’s in the cards ‘Get Well Soon – everybody!’
Do all lies have a taste?  Let it go, I don’t know, oh…
A cow’s neck, bad shave, in the low blow slo-mo”

Written out like that, these lyrics are nonsense.  But when you listen to a Wilco song, it doesn’t feel like you’re listening to word salad.  It feels like Tweedy is trying to say something.  Which is why “I am trying to break your heart” feels, to me at least, like a song about regret.  And why “I Might” feels, to me at least, like trying to calm yourself down in the middle of a panic attack.  Now, you might listen to these songs and get a very different picture of what they’re about.  And that is the point.  By focusing on the emotion and not getting into specifics Tweedy can write songs that mean different things to different people.  Which is why people connect to Wilco songs instead of simply saying “This guy clearly has mental problems.”

There’s a part at the end of the SongExploder episode where Tweedy is talking about the chorus for Magnetized:

“I realized we’re magnetized.  I don’t think I can rephrase that statement with any greater clarity.”

Of course he could.  The fact is, Jeff Tweedy isn’t interested in clarity.  Clarity is the opposite of what he’s trying to do.  He’s trying to make music that is unclear, and can have multiple meanings, instead of simply expressing an idea clearly.  That may seem backwards, it seems like the idea of art is to express something in a clear manner so that it can be understood by others, but it really isn’t.  Great art, is open to different interpretation.  By consciously constructing lyrics that don’t always make sense, Tweedy is able to paint an obscure picture that means different things to different people.

Clarity be damned.


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