Not to sound jaded, but there’s reason to call the necessity of a Jeff Tweedy solo record into question. Fans have been clamoring for him to step out on his own and produce one for a long time, even though we’ve been listening to Tweedy’s songs for over 20 years. It started with the bruised tales of podunk heartbreak he achingly slung alongside Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo, an act he followed up by becoming his generation’s great American songwriting auteur with Wilco. Judged in that light, Sukierae, the debut of both his newly minted father-son band Tweedy and Jeff as a solo artist, feels a little bit like a technicality. What were we expecting that we haven’t already become well-versed in over the course of eight Wilco records and Tweedy’s various other projects?
Heading into Sukierae, it was easy enough to suspect that it might sound like something torn from the pages of Wilco’s expertly crafted playbook. But that still left listeners with something to wonder about. It might sound like Wilco, but Wilco has sounded like a lot of things over the years. Would Sukierae channel the glass-eyed alt country of early records like A.M. and Being There? Maybe it would harness the picturesque power pop of Summerteeth, or better yet the moody artfulness of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. And just to be safe, maybe we should leave the door cracked open just enough to let the mellow ’70s pop of Sky Blue Sky drop in? We know what the guy’s music sounds like; the question is which of Tweedy’s many musical IDs would show up to play.
To be certain, Sukierae is shaded with a bit of all of the above. It’s a record by totally unequal measures angry and vigorous (see the terse album opener “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood”), shaggy and loose (“World Away” and “Flowering” sound like castaway tracks from The Band), artfully complex (check out Spencer Tweedy’s drumming chops on “Diamond Light – Part 1”), soaked in Guthrie-inspired Americana (“Fake Fur Coat”), and gorgeously sun-kissed by ’70s pop (“New Moon”, “Summer Noon”). That might sound like an uneven grab bag of tricks, but Jeff and Spencer’s jamming actually flows rather nicely. Given the former’s penchant for penning songs from across a broad sonic spectrum, the duo can get away with jumping around without sounding too flighty or restless.
(Cover Story: Jeff & Spencer Tweedy: Everybody Goes Home)
But while the elder Tweedy colors his songs in different sounds and moods throughout the record’s 20 tracks, it’s the soulful, confessional singer-songwriter that stands head and shoulders above the singer’s many musical incarnations. Tweedy has always been at his best when he’s confronting drama and weathering storms, and the album’s best moments are informed by a special brand of turmoil. Written and recorded in the midst of Jeff’s wife and Spencer’s mother Sue Miller’s still-ongoing fight with cancer (Sukierae is named for her), Tweedy lets all the pain, worry, and heartache drip from every pore.
Many songs are (or appear to be) deliberately about Sue, whether he’s ruminating about their life together (“Well I’ve always been certain nearly all of my life/ One day I would be your burden, and you’d be my wife,” he croons over a lonesome acoustic guitar on “New Moon”) or wrestling with the thought of that life falling apart (“Are you scared? Are you frightened, terrified of being alone?” he wonders aloud on “Diamond Light – Part 1”). Other times, as on the aching piano ballad “Where My Love”, Tweedy pushes though the bullshit and tries to see the light breaking through at the end of the tunnel. (“I want to watch you growing old and dumb,” he whisper-sings. “I want to see what you and I become.”) For a singer who’s proven so capable of mystifying us with tales of American aquarium drinkers, few are better than Tweedy when he’s at his honest best.
Ultimately the album’s familiarity is a double-edged sword. The songs fit comfortably, even if they’re a little bit too well-worn to really get your blood running. But while it can sound a little old hat at times, Jeff and Spencer Tweedy sprinkle Sukierae with some of the most personal songs Jeff has written to date. What it might lack in sonic adventurousness the record more than makes up for with resounding heart, and Sukierae stays afloat with those moments where the singer is working at or damn near close to his full potential.
Essential Tracks: “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood”, “Flowering”, and “New Moon”