The stupendous freedom of the late summer, well-catalogued by Frank Ocean’s new masterpiece “Blonde,” is coming to an end. With it comes a wave of that self-indulgently sad rock we all love to pair with the changing weather. I’m hopeful that if Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool” could make waves this year, maybe Jeff Tweedy and Wilco can make a splash with the release of their new album, “Schmilco.”
Drawing a Radiohead comparison probably won’t work in favor of the album. After all, Wilco’s most successful album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” sold around 670,000 copies, and Radiohead’s “OK Computer” sold over 8 million. My point is that there’s a thread of hope for somber rock bands who began their rockstardom in the ’90s.
To show you just how good “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is (and how good “Schmilco” might be), let’s tackle the first song. If you like what you hear, maybe check out the rest of the upcoming album.
“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” is not the saddest, prettiest or most chaotic song on the album, but it’s all of those things and a sullen intro to what YHF has to offer.
“I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue,” Tweedy drones as the song opens to a light guitar and bells. It isn’t hard to decide what the line is about (destructive alcoholism) but it’s just vague enough that there’s space for misunderstanding. Tweedy wants that space. YHF is entirely about the difficulties of honest communication (especially with the ones you love) and the album is crammed with it. He tries to shelter his lover and can’t express the ideas in his heads. Things come out wrong. Sometimes he doesn’t even understand himself.
Also, you can’t honestly tell me that the alliterative A’s in that line isn’t a dark but clever reference to Alcoholics Anonymous.
The second stanza of the verse continues to tackle the “tongue-tied lightning” that will persist on the album (see “I’m the Man Who Loves You”). “This is not a joke, so please stop smiling,” sings Tweedy.
Then there’s the crux of what makes this song special. Tweedy hands the listener the reason for his “tongue-tied lightning” at the end of each stanza. “What was I thinking when I … ?” he repeats. The blank is filled in with something different each time, including gems such as “when I said hello,” “when I let go of you” and “when I let you back in.” It’s a real kick to the throat that beneath the story about heartbreak and misunderstanding, there is the sad implication that the heartbreak came from a “me problem” instead of a “we problem.”
Beyond that, we can all just sit back and enjoy the narrative of the song. Except it’s gut-wrenching. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” tells the story of a guy who escalates his self-destructive behavior so that his ex-lover might notice. It doesn’t feel like malicious revenge in the context of the album; rather it’s a cry for help and the desire for the ex-lover’s sympathy as a surrogate for their love.
Tweedy and co. have released three singles from “Schmilco.” First there’s “If I Ever Was a Child,” which is narrowly focused on Tweedy’s floaty and downtrodden lyrics but has enough thumping bass and twanging guitar to stay interesting. Then there’s “Someone to Lose,” the momentum of which comes when an AC/DC-sounding lead guitar joins in after about a minute. And lastly there’s “Locator,” which I’ll admit I don’t like. Truth be told, all three sound kind of the same, but they sound like Wilco, and on some level, that’s fine with me.