Celebrating Schmilco Four Years Late Because No-One Else Has or Probably Ever Will2 December 2020
In 1994, Jay Farrar left the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo. Its remaining members, led by their frontman Jeff Tweedy, formed Wilco. In the early 2000s, during Wilco’s critical renaissance, it seemed pretty likely that Jeff Tweedy would die.
It was cliché, really: some dishevelled twenty-something dude with a guitar hailed the Messiah of Americana, battling drug addiction and tensions with his band and song-writing collaborator Jay Bennett, reaching into the tumultuous depths of his soul to emerge with albums growing more magnum by the opus—in Wilco’s case, the flawless three-album run from 1996’s Being There to 1999’s Summerteeth and 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s a well-told tale that’s supposed to be a tragedy (and, later, biopic. My pitch: directed by Spike Jonze, starring a charmingly miscast Michael Cera). This is how our tortured geniuses so often end up—sacrificed upon the altar of culture, mourned for what could have been.
It is sometimes confronting, with this in mind, to listen back to some of Wilco’s early catalogue. It can sound like Jeff Tweedy is eulogising himself. Here, on the song Via Chicago from Summerteeth:
“I painted my name on the back of a leaf
And I watched it float away
The hope I had in a notebook full of white, dry pages
Was all I tried to save
But the wind blew me back via Chicago
In the middle of the night
And all without fight
At the crush of veils and starlight”
On War on War from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot:
“You have to lose
You have to lose
You have to learn how to die
If you want to want to be alive”
And again, on Company in my Back from A Ghost is Born:
“And I will always die
I will always die
I will always die
So you can remember me”
Nothing gives an album a sense of stakes quite like a lyricist who doesn’t know if he’ll be alive for the next one. The quality, quantity and intensity of this era of Wilco sounds to me like a band trying desperately to write themselves a legacy, scrawling in a “notebook full of white, dry pages” with whatever time they have.
There is a dark aspect of our musical culture that desires or at least permits this kind of self-destruction, that rewards it with rave reviews and rising record sales. Think of 20-year-old Fiona Apple in a SPIN cover story declaring “I know I’m going to die young” to a journalist who compares her fawningly to Anouk Aimée and Janis Joplin; think Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Lil Peep, Juice Wrld. Tobias Wolff wrote in his 2003 novel Old School: “The beauty of a fragment is that it still supports the hope of brilliant completeness”. Our musical martyrs are beautiful fragments. They are a promise only partly fulfilled, and our adoration of their music comes intertwined with the imagining of a brilliant completeness it suggests could have been. One of the worst things an artist can do to their own legacy is to live a long life, second perhaps to living a happy one.
Earlier, I quoted a line from the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot track War on War: “You have to learn how to die / If you want to want to be alive”. I said it sounded like Jeff Tweedy eulogising himself, but maybe he was eulogising a period in Wilco’s life he knew (or hoped) would soon be over. They’d been tearing themselves apart for years, and the only way to survive was to die: sacrifice their line-up and their place in the spotlight, killing their cultural relevance to stop killing themselves. Jeff Tweedy didn’t die. He went to rehab. Jay Bennett was voted out of the band and they underwent a series of membership changes, lasting until they settled on a line-up in 2007 which they have kept ever since. Wilco has, for the last fifteen or so years, been committing the critical suicide of being both long-lasting and contented.
“Now the people say
What drugs did you take?
And why don’t you start taking them again?
But they’re not my friends
And if I was dead
What difference would it ever make to them?”
Having Been Is No Way To Be
Jeff Tweedy, WARM (2018)
Schmilco came out in 2016, a few albums after this rebirth. It is not Wilco’s magnum opus. I mean, no kidding, right? They called it fucking Schmilco. But when it came out, it spoke to a very specific teenage uncertainty with which I, thirteen-year-old existentialist and certified Wilco fan, was primed to connect. And my cognisance of the emotional tumult in Wilco’s early work made Schmilco’s low stakes, maligned by so many as unambitious, feel instead, to me, reassuring. I knew Jeff Tweedy wasn’t kidding when he sung “And I cry, cry, cry / Cry all day” on Cry All Day because he was the guy who wrote How to Fight Loneliness – but he knew, and knew I knew, that the song’s present tense was an act. He was singing about a sadness he’d felt decades ago—which I was feeling now—acknowledging it, commiserating, and gently illuminating a path through. And when he sung “Facing the blast and the moon and the math / But you still never know where your soul is attached” on Someone to Lose, I might not have quite grasped what he meant, but he mentioned math and seemed confused about life—which put him pretty much where I was.
I don’t feel as intensely about Schmilco now as I did when it came out, but it still holds a unique place in Wilco’s discography for me. It’s no longer its own album to me, really; it’s a document of the very specific time in my life to which it has attached itself, preserving as a photo album does, its dimensions deepening not only with every listen but every month or year between listens. Like much of Wilco’s best work, Schmilco possesses an unobtrusive wisdom which reveals itself gradually in a seemingly endless string of small revelations. It is a quiet, generous marvel.
“I was tied up like a boat
Unbuttoned like a coat
Set free for a while”
If I Ever Was a Child
Wilco, Schmilco (2016)
The legend goes that when Joni Mitchell first showed Kris Kristofferson the devastatingly raw songs that would become Blue, he told her: “Oh, Joni. Save something for yourself.” Forty years later, Charli XCX consults fans over Zoom during the writing of how i’m feeling now; Phoebe Bridgers sings Kyoto from her bathtub on Jimmy Kimmel; the musical icons of our generation livestream from their bedrooms and parcel out endless unfettered musings on Twitter. Artists are giving more of themselves to us than ever before. They rely on us for support, we rely on them for emotional catharsis; they offer up their innermost lives to us through their work, and we rifle through them anonymously. It’s an intimate relationship in which the artist is immensely more vulnerable than us. If there is an upside here, though, it’s that it has become harder to separate the art from the human being behind it as they so visibly perform the unpretentious and unguarded actions of living. Cynically put: the more an artist’s life is visibly connected to their work, the more we want them alive.
As these walls between artists and audience grow thinner, it is worth considering what effect we—the way we listen, consume, discuss and evaluate music—have on the wellbeing of the artists we rely on. The relationship I have with Schmilco is hyper-specific to where that album found me in life, and the foundations of my love for it have arguably little to do with the typical qualities we use to measure music’s value. But then, what do we value in music? How often does the Metacritic score of an album correlate to its emotional impact on us? Sometimes it does, sure; but in my personal experience, I find this correlation common in the albums that I like, and rare in the ones I love. Oscar Wilde writes in his 1981 essay The Critic as Artist: “There are two ways of disliking art … One is to dislike it. The other, to like it rationally.” Whenever I truly love an album, I do so intimately and irrationally. I love these albums the same way I talk about them with the people I am closest to—I love these albums the same way I love those people. And whenever I engage in such a conversation with someone about an album they or I love, I sense our experiences are similar. Perhaps a move towards music criticism in this vein—celebrating the emotion clouding the listener’s judgement, free from concessions to objectivity—could help us reframe the relationship between artist and fan in a more truthful way. I’m inspired by projects like Hanif Abdurraqib’s 68to05, in which he enlists friends, critics, poets, and regular fans to write longform pieces “about albums they love”; I’m inspired too by the lawless, freeform field of music podcasting.
This kind of love for an album is one that day-one reviews don’t account for and star ratings can’t express, and so it is ironed out in the apathetic aggregation of critical consensus. It is a love which is, according to the criteria we use to measure an album’s worth, meaningless. By such criteria, Schmilco’s impact on the world seems to amount to an affable shrug: a 7.0 on Pitchfork, 7.8 on Paste, 79 on Metacritic, a few middling spots on end-of-year lists and none on end-of-decade ones, it’s fine, inoffensive, inconsequential. And now, four years down the line, it seems unlikely that much will emerge to contradict this evaluation. Schmilco is no maligned masterpiece destined for critical reappraisal in the years to come. Even its footprint on Wilco’s own career trajectory has been remarkably small. And I find this, in its own way, a little heart-breaking.
Schmilco is not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But I loved it very intensely, in all love’s irrationality and subjectivity, and it remains a part of me. It has written itself into the white, dry pages of my life: the time in year nine when I was thinking about a crush of mine who was wearing a sweater on a 35-degree day as Jeff Tweedy sang “Sweating in a sweater you’ve got too much style” on Someone to Lose and I could swear he was narrating my own thoughts; the school trip two years later, when the Joan Cornellà artwork on my Schmilco sweater started a conversation with someone who later became a close friend, with whom I have since drifted apart but will always associate with that album cover; the photo taken later that year on a trip to Chicago where I stood wearing that same Schmilco sweater, elated, below the towers I’d been looking at for years on the cover of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. This album earns just three sentences on Wilco’s Wikipedia page, but it has scrawled itself throughout my memories, text messages and photo albums, and it continues this process as I write now. Schmilco was my guidebook, for a while.
So I am writing this for there to be proof, somewhere, in some obscure corner of the internet, that this album meant something to someone. That someone’s life has been somehow changed, for the better, by its existence. Thank you, Wilco, for Schmilco. Here I write this gratitude into the world just has your album has written itself into mine. I’m calling just to let you know it dawned on me. Oh, but it’s long. I’m the man who loves you. Almost alone, not quite. Thank you for not dying, Jeff Tweedy. You’re quite someone to lose.
“I hear your laugh in my laughter”
How Hard it is for a Desert to Die
Jeff Tweedy, WARM (2018)