Some have aptly likened Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics to letters or conversations set to music. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that on Wilco’s debut, A.M., one of the conversational songs is titled “A Box Full of Letters.” Yeah, I know, that was a stretch. But still, several of the songs on the album follow suit; admissions of loves that never were and goodbyes to loves gone sour running throughout the album’s lucky thirteen songs.
Wilco was born out of the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo when co-founders/friends Tweedy and Jay Farrar parted ways due to creative differences. Farrar collaborated with original Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn and started Son Volt while Tweedy recruited remaining bandmates, guitarist Max Johnston, bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Croomer.
Originally released in 1995, A.M. has more in common with Uncle Tupelo than Wilco’s later releases. The album is power-poppy, bittersweet, alt-country driven primarily by Tweedy’s lyrics and Johnston’s guitar. “I Must Be High” and “Casino Queen” suitably set the mood for the album. On the former, Tweedy sings bye, bye, bye to one of many dissatified in-song girlfriends to come while on the high-rolling “Casino Queen,” Johnston riffs and plays lead over ubiquitous cowbell, a winding fiddle and en masse vocals during the chorus.
While reminiscing over jangly power chords in “A Box Full of Letters,” Tweedy crafts the playfully poignant refrain “I just can’t find the time / To write my mind / The way I want it to read” — the only thing that can be said of a relationship on the rocks or on hiatus that’s left one with more questions than answers. Tweedy shifts to a raspy Paul Westerberg delivery on “Shouldn’t Be Ashamed” as he once again considers the difficulties of a love gone awry. A.M. quiets from the previous power-popish pair to the devotional country and western “Pick Up the Change.” Whenever it seems Tweedy’s heart or his darling’s may go astray, they’ll remain together by the sound of her voice or a kiss on the cheek. The pedal steeled “I Thought I Held You” delves into another broken relationship. Tweedy painfully confesses to the source of his heartache “I’m like a songwriter / You’re the reason that I’ve run out / Run out of metaphors.”
On “That’s Not the Issue,” a cuckolded protagonist confronts his belle prior to leaving her. Tweedy’s voice would seem grave if it weren’t for the bouncy, bluegrass twang of banjos and gee-tars that considerably lighten the mood. Even as he mentions that his gal’s been sleeping with someone new, I couldn’t help but feel while listening to the album in my car that I was being chased by Rosco and Boss Hogg. My own perverse Catherine Bach nostalga aside, the above farewell song is followed by the slower, Stirratt-written farewell “It’s Just That Simple.” Sliding, sad steel guitars accompany Stirratt’s broken choir boy voice as he sings of a relationship that failed to make any ripples.
The farewells are followed by the gorgeous confessional “Should’ve Been in Love,” one of the most honest, easy to relate to songs on the album. As Tweedy sings “Your mind’s been racing, Your heart’s been chasing / And you might as well face, time’s wasting / It’s true,” the open-chorded strums of an acoustic guitar make room for a pulsing bassline coupled with an infectous sliding steel guitar/electric guitar harmony. The admission of unstated attraction is perhaps best encapsualted by the rueful repetition of the song’s title or the understated lyrics during the confession’s sparest moment: “I know how it goes / So I just had to let you know I know.”
The funny, sloshed-sounding “Passenger Side” is a beer spilling ode to lushes being driven around and bugging their friends before getting dropped off. We’ve known a couple and, yes, some of us could have probably sung this one. At least they (we) got home okay. The evocative lyrics of the somber, introspective “Dash 7” and the inquisitive “Blue-Eyed Soul” prove Tweedy’s talent in writing enticing, mysterious sketches. A.M. ends with the country-rock, doomed-love “Too Far Apart,” a catchy collection of crunchy chords. Occasional warm spurts of organ spring between the wall-to-wall solo that squeals and whines as Tweedy sings, “We were too far apart / Right from the start / I couldn’t be any closer to you now.”
It’s hard not to relate to Tweedy and company on A.M. The pain of unrequited love and broken hearts inevitable, but fortunately it’s the primary material that Wilco refines and renders palatable. Love lost, love regained, the half-awake drunk in your car; Tweedy’s truly tapped into universal human experience.
Replacements – Tim
Uncle Tupelo – No Depression
Old 97s – Too Far to Care