by Sam Buntz
“For I am every dead thing, / In whom love wrought new alchemy. / For his art did express / A quintessence even from nothingness, / From dull privations, and lean emptiness; / He ruined me, and I am re-begot / Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.” – John Donne
“You have to lose. / You have to lose. / You have to learn how to die, / If you want to, want to be alive…/ Okay?” – Wilco, “War on War”
Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a primary example of what Gram Parsons called “Cosmic American Music.” Its themes are definitely “cosmic”: desire, death, despair, and religion – but they are immersed in a distinctly American atmosphere. You could call it an example of “how the gods come to dance in America” – for the album indicates that they come to dance with fervent love and desire (“I’m the Man Who Loves You”), with mad destructive impulses (“Jesus Etc.” and “War on War”), and, additionally, with blissfully dumb joy (“Heavy Metal Drummer,” with its “I miss the innocence I’ve known / Playing Kiss covers, beautiful and stoned.”) But Jeff Tweedy’s own struggles with crippling depression, migraines, and prescription drug addiction inform even some of the softest songs with a rougher edge – the album provides a portrait of a man being, in the words of John Donne, “rebegot / Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.” (Tweedy wrote all of the lyrics – but Jay Bennett, who broke with the band immediately after YHF was released and would later die of an accidental pain-killer overdose, co-wrote the music.)
“I am an American aquarium drinker, / I assassin down the avenue, / I’m riding out in the big city, blinking / What was I thinking when I let go of you?” So sings Tweedy in the first lines of the album’s opening track, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” – and we immediately realize that, lyrically, this is going to be an unusual experience. “An American Aquarium drinker” is, I take it, a kind of Walt Whitman-esque superman-everyman, who “contains multitudes,” who can drink entire seas and all the life contained therein. (And I would like to point out that it’s somewhat clever to use the word “assassin” as though it were a verb, since it sounds like it could be one.) Walking with this stealth-strut, the singer moves towards his beloved, towards a sordid yet sacred rendezvous where they’ll “undress just like cross-eyed strangers” before he holds her “in that Bible-black pre-dawn.” Everything in the song makes it sound like a tender love song, even though the refrain is “I am trying to break your heart. / Still, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t easy— / I am trying to break your heart.” At the end, the opening “I am an American Aquarium drinker…” verse is replaced with “Disposable Dixie-Cup drinker / I assassin down the avenue / I’m riding out in the big city, blinking / What was I thinking when I let go of you?” Masterfully and subtly, Tweedy conveys the sense of emotional and imaginative diminishment entailed by this break-up (if that’s what it is), by altering the “American Aquarium drinker” – this lusty poet containing a decent sampling of all the oceans in his imagination – into someone drinking out of an office cooler, walking to and from work but always into love’s despair (if “Disposable Dixie-cup drinker” refers to the speaker, as I surmise, even though there is no “I am…”). Yet the mood of the first song is not entirely one of desperation – it conveys a sense of things getting torn apart, but gently – a subtle, silvery dissolution, that resolves into a new form even as it dissolves. And the lyrics match that description exactly…
According to interviews, Wilco were influenced not only by musical/lyrical sources in working on YHF but by literary sources as well: for instance, Henry Miller, William H. Gass, Samuel Beckett, and even Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. Having listened to this album fairly frequently over the course of the last two years (if it wasn’t a personal favorite, I wouldn’t writing this) – I recently realized how strange it is that, when you pay attention to the percussion and, really, to what’s going on in general, you start with wonder at how some of it manages to hang together – especially that first song… It continually seems to be about to fall apart, yet the chord progressions hold, everything holds, and it all works magically.
The themes of the album all seem to connect with two major, over-arching themes (and I’m citing The Onion AVClub’s review): love and apocalypse. Yet depression and despair are also to be found around every corner. To see what form these themes take when they intertwine, it would be helpful to look at one of the album’s central songs, “Jesus, Etc.” – a surprisingly sincere religious song, as I understand it. “Our love is all of God’s money,” Tweedy sings – meaning, of course, that the sum total of love in the world is what God’s got to work with. We set the limit on it – it can be as finite or infinite as we want it to be, depending on how loving we ourselves are. It is almost as though the song suggests that God’s strength is somehow the strength of human beings – that the two forces are one, and thus God has a strange sort of reliance on humans (for their redemptive work performed on His behalf), just as human beings need to rely on God, on the Love which represents Him.
The song opens with these lyrics – which, it now strikes me, are fairly startling, since, instead of pursuing the traditional practice of seeking comfort from God or Jesus, Tweedy seeks to offer comfort to Jesus: “Jesus, don’t cry / You can rely on me, honey / You can combine anything you want… ” The “honey” might look ironic on paper, but in the song, I think it does seem like a genuine term of endearment. Then we continue into a more apocalyptic mood, as Tweedy re-assures Jesus, “I’ll be around – / You were right about the stars / Each one is a setting sun.” I find that last line to be one of the best in the album – though strictly on the darker side of things. Yet the song avoids being “Christian,” exactly, if only because its portrayal of Jesus gets so weird. If we accept that the “you” of the chorus (which comes next) is still Jesus (and there’s no reason not to), Christ then appears as a figure standing in the midst of apocalypse, affected by the very catastrophes that are befalling creation: “Tall buildings shake / Voices escape / Singing sad, sad songs / Tuned to chords / Strung down your cheek / Bitter melodies / Turning your orbit around.” (I placed the dashes to try to indicate some of Tweedy’s emphasis in singing this – since, as sung, the stresses make these lines even more impressive than they are on the page – and I think they’re rather impressive on the page.) Intentionally or not, there is a reference to the “Music of the Spheres” in here – melodies that have now gone bitter and sad are directing the orbits in which the worlds spin – and Christ is the spirit caught up in the midst of all this, weeping. In a later verse, Christ is equally subject to a kind of universal desecration, suffering as the cosmos suffers: “Voices whine / Skyscrapers are scraping together / Your voice is smoking / Last cigarettes are all you can get / Turning your orbit around. “ Yet, in the verses between these two, Tweedy breaks in with the plangent verses about love quoted earlier – “Our love is all of God’s money.” This line is sung to the same part of the tune that “You were right about the stars” is sung to, but instead of following up with, “each one is a setting sun,” Tweedy moderates to “Everyone is a burning sun.” Whereas the stars fail us, gradually going out, the love that burns in human beings saves us – effectively, it is Christ.
None of that is meant to sound like a sermon – it’s just that when you need to explain what “Jesus Etc.” is actually saying, your explanation necessarily sounds like a sermon. At any rate, I’ve devoted so much space to it, because I think it’s the album’s centerpiece (at least, in terms of its lyrics.) Having already taken a fairly in-depth look at this song and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” I’ll now try to range at seeming random, in order to get at some of the better lyrics. A chief poetic moment comes in “Radio Cure,” with its “Picking apples for the kings and queens of things I’ll never see. / Oh, distance has no way / of making love understandable.” That first line is a great description of what human life is – following desires and impulses or performing chores and tasks willed by gods and impulses and forces of which we ourselves are unaware. (There may even be a covert relation between this line and Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking.”) The distance between the apple-picker and the kings and queens is, I think, related to the distance that can’t make love understandable – we have, as Matthew Arnold says, “been on many thousand lines… But hardly have we, for one little hour, been on our own line…”
A quest for self-knowledge, eluding one in pain and depression, is also clearly present in songs like “Kamera” (which is a pretty upbeat song, despite its lyrical content.) The camera of the title is what will allow the singer to catch glimpses of his self’s true content: “I need a camera… I’ve counted out / The days to see how far / I’ve driven in the dark / With echoes in my heart. / Phone my family / Tell ’em I’m lost on the sidewalk / And no, it’s not okay.” The passage through absence and darkness is brought out in “War on War” – the best lyrics of which I quoted at the top of this article. The song gives pain and despair meaning by showing that they’re just necessary steps in breaking down the old corrupted self before a new, truly living self can emerge again. In the apocalyptic “Ashes of American Flags,” we find, “All my lies are always wishes / I know I would die if I could come back new.” If Nietzsche was right when he said “Art is the lie we tell, lest we perish of the truth,” Jeff Tweedy is admitting that his lies – whether in life or in art – are his way of attaining release from the limited sphere of everyday life and into a timeless present – into a world that is better, because fictional. I construct the second line as meaning that he would willingly die a figurative death, willingly go through hell, if he knew that a phoenix-like resurrection was awaiting him on the other side. But for now, his art is just a small consolation in purgatory: “I shake like a toothache / When I hear myself sing.” The apocalyptic mood mixes with the love mood in “Poor Places” – where the people around the singer are decaying in some sort of Mid-Western or Southern hell hole (as I imagine it), yet he desires a love that seems to be yanking him out of the same situation. “It’s my father’s voice, dreaming of / Sailors sailing off in the morning / For the air-conditioned room at the top of the stairs. / His jaw’s been broken, / His bandage is wrapped too tight, / His fangs have been pulled, and I really want to see you tonight.” But, rather than going out to see this girl, he stays inside, as the refrain of the song makes clear (unless she comes over) – “It’s hot in the poor places, tonight – / I’m not going outside.”
“I’m the Man who Loves You” is the most direct expression of the album’s love theme, with it’s teeth-gritting Neil Young-style guitar solo, indicating vast reservoirs of desire behind its stuttering electricity. Love has made the singer multi-armed, potent, an upward gyre of energy. He tells his beloved, “All I can be is a busy sea / Of spinning wheels and hands that feel for / Stones to throw and feet that run, but / Come back home.” Love is a more salient theme in “Pot Kettle Black” as well: “Sleeping eye sockets / Baby, suck your thumb / I’ll keep you in my locket / A string I never strum. / It’s become so obvious / You are so oblivious to yourself.” Yet, clearly this is a weird variety of love – maundering through ignorance, through the lover’s oblivious-ness, resigned to possessing its object like a picture in a locket or a string set aside to be pondered but never strummed. But in the final lines of the final song (“Reservations”) the singer clarifies that his sadness and his idiosyncrasies are but his own: “I’ve got reservations / About so many things / But not about you.”
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released at almost the exact same time that September 11 happened (at one point, that was the date for which the album’s release was scheduled). It’s eerie how many of the songs—written earlier that year—somehow seem prophetic of the American mood after the terrorist attack: “Skyscrapers are scraping together, / Your voice is smoking…” This is but another instance of what T.S. Eliot said of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”: “It happens now and then that a poet by some strange accident expresses the mood of his generation, at the same time that he is expressing a mood of his own that is quite removed from that of his generation.” The lyrics seem to have been written entirely out of Tweedy’s own struggles, yet, through such a strange coincidence of personal and societal moods, the album’s anxieties about apocalypse, personal disintegration, and the dubious success or failure of love, mapped out the national mood very well – even though that mood is very distinct from what Tweedy’s personal mood must have been. Nonetheless, it seems to me the defining rock album of the past decade – a perfect crystallization of what a sensitive soul was feeling as he watched the planets jarring in their alignment.