Jeff TWeedY Warm

More songs about nar­cis­sism and death. By Alastair McKay

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Un­usu­ally, for a rock’n’roll record, Warm comes with sleevenotes by a win­ner of the Man Booker prize. Ge­orge saun­ders, the au­thor of Lin­coln In The Bardo and a con­trib­u­tor to The New Yorker’s shouts & Mur­murs, sug­gests that Warm “is one of the most joy­ful, cel­e­bra­tory, in­fec­tious col­lec­tions of songs” the au­thor has heard in a while. There are, of course, qual­i­fi­ca­tions along­side this claim; a huge fall­ing pi­ano la­belled “Death” is men­tioned – but it still seems sur­pris­ing. This joy, this cel­e­bra­tion, this in­fec­tion: what does it sound like when de­liv­ered by Jeff Tweedy?

It sounds pretty much as you’d ex­pect from fol­low­ing Tweedy’s re­cent ex­tracur­ric­u­lar out­put. Within Wilco, Tweedy’s tunes are probed and ca­ressed, scratched and sug­ared by a band who all bring their own flavours of cre­ative ten­sion to the stu­dio. Work­ing on his own, Tweedy favours a more skele­tal ar­chi­tec­ture. you can hear the dif­fer­ence on 2017’s To­gether At Last, a much un­der­rated record: with the songs shorn of their Wilco ar­range­ments, the un­der­stated beauty of the singer’s song­writ­ing is re­vealed. Or, per­haps more rel­e­vant here, record­ing as Tweedy on 2014’s

Sukierae, Jeff and his son spencer com­bined to un­der­colour the songs, many of which ru­mi­nated on mor­tal­ity and love. That record could have made its point more force­fully – mu­si­cally, there were trail­ing wires ev­ery­where – ex­cept that its point was un­cer­tainty.

so, Warm. not hot, not cold. The al­bum’s ti­tle comes from the penul­ti­mate song, “Warm (When The sun Has Died)”. It’s a del­i­cate thing with a glint of steel in the gui­tars. The words are pared so that only the po­etry re­mains. What you get first is the sad­ness, then the re­silience. There are two verses, and Tweedy doesn’t so much sing the lines as sigh them. It is a song about death, and while the iden­tity of the nar­ra­tor is ob­scured, it can be viewed as the last tes­ta­ment of a dy­ing man. “Please

take my ad­vice,” he says. “Worry into your song/Grow away from your anger/ Dis­tance be­longs.” The warmth of the ti­tle is a fad­ing rem­nant of life. “I don’t be­lieve in heaven,” says the nar­ra­tor in the

con­clud­ing verse. “I keep some heat in­side/ Like a red brick in the sum­mer/Warm when the sun has died.” There is a dan­ger, al­ways, in as­sum­ing that songs are au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. With

It’s a ten­der man­i­festo of self-doubt, a shout fad­ing into a mur­mur

Warm, it’s hard to think any­thing else. The record was writ­ten while Tweedy was work­ing on his book, at a time when ques­tions of mor­tal­ity were crash­ing into his life. The ill­ness of his wife sue was the in­spi­ra­tion for Sukierae, though the death of Jeff’s older brother Greg in 2013 must also have cast its shadow. The pass­ing in 2017 of Tweedy’s fa­ther Robert is clearly sig­nif­i­cant on both a hu­man and an artis­tic level. The play­ful sound­ing “Don’t For­get” brings mention of a funeral (“sweat­ing in a new suit”), but the song’s view­point also swirls through the gen­er­a­tions as it cel­e­brates re­silience and fa­mil­ial Dna. also, if you lis­ten to it twice, it re­veals it­self as a pas­sion­ate love song, for a fa­ther from a son, to a son from a fa­ther.

There are oc­ca­sional breaks from this mood of som­bre re­silience. “let’s Go Rain” is a John len­non-ish re­work­ing of the story of noah’s ark, in which Tweedy, the ag­nos­tic, looks to the heav­ens for a flood, be­fore con­clud­ing that rock’n’roll – an “ocean of gui­tars”, some­times played by scott McCaughey – is that pu­ri­fy­ing rain.

But then again, re­grets. Jeff has a few. The big song on the record, the tune that holds the thing to­gether, is the gor­geous lament “Hav­ing Been Is no Way To Be” (pos­si­bly the ul­ti­mate Tweedy ti­tle, be­ing both sad and un­sen­ti­men­tal, re­flect­ing a song that is sorry and un­apolo­getic, gnarly and ten­der). Tweedy says of this song that it is “prob­a­bly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal”, which is al­most right. It reads – more than it sounds – like the night-sweats of a man analysing the worth of his opin­ions, and de­cid­ing what story he wants to tell about him­self. It is, Tweedy says, “as direct as I’m able to get. That may be the lim­its of my abil­ity to em­pathise with my­self.”

so, joy? Well, maybe, if you take joy and in­ter­ro­gate it to the point where it for­gets how to dance. Warm is some­thing else, tougher, but no less valu­able. It’s a ten­der man­i­festo of self-doubt, a shout fad­ing into a mur­mur. It goes out as it comes in, with the singer lost in a dark mantra. “I don’t know,” he sings, sound­ing just about OK with that.

Tweedy: reach­ing “the lim­its of my abil­ity to em­pathise with my­self”

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