What Jeff Tweedy Has Been Trying to Say

The acoustic album Together at Last spotlights the Wilco singer’s knack for communicating about communication.

Jeff Tweedy at 2017 New Orleans Jazzfest
Jeff Tweedy at 2017 New Orleans Jazzfest (Amy Harris / AP)

Jeff Tweedy’s Together at Last, an acoustic album of songs he’s previously recorded, forces the listener to reckon anew with how one of the best songwriters of our day mostly sings in gibberish. Without the layers of instrumental intrigue that distinguish Wilco’s folk rock, the American Dixie cup drinker assassin-ing down the avenue of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and the muzzle of bees of “Muzzle of Bees” have nowhere to hide—they ask to be heard and understood.

Together at Last also, of course, demonstrates Tweedy’s remarkable talent with songcraft. Even the most avant-garde of Wilco tracks hold up here, even when it’s just harmonica, guitar, and maybe some whistling; a song like “Via Chicago,” you’re reminded, is catchy, not just creepy. You’re also reminded of how distinctive and lovely Tweedy’s voice is: his slight huskiness, his way of ending words quietly, the willingness to crack when he wails a high note. But more than anything the album highlights that his poetry often seems to be about poetry itself.

Like a lot of rockers, Tweedy creates lyrics in a process resembling automatic writing: He gets a melody down by singing true nonsense, and then he pieces together words that might fit the syllables. “The gift, I think, is the ability to be able to go into your subconscious, come back unscathed, and present something from it,” Tweedy told Joe Fassler for The Atlantic in 2014. He added that the reason we need poetry and songs is “to say the things that can only be expressed in this kind of elegant, inexplicable way. Things that, if you could explain them straightforwardly, you wouldn’t have to have poetry, you wouldn’t have to have songs.”

The striking thing about that point of view in relation to Tweedy’s catalogue is that many of his songs seem to be about the impossibility of articulating accurate meaning through words. The title of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came from a military code broadcast by radio, an apt metaphor for Tweedy’s take on communication: His narrator is always transmitting, hopeful but also worried he’ll be deciphered by his intended audience. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” conveyed this, in part with echoing guitar strums and white noise, and in part with Tweedy’s mad-libs. The aquarium drinker is drunk; his expression of affection comes out as “tongue-tied lightning” and sincerity mistaken for sarcasm. The only time there’s clarity is when he’s talking to himself: “What was I thinking when I let go of you?”

“Muzzle of Bees” might also be about mealy-mouthedness getting in the way of intimacy. The 2004 album it came from, A Ghost Is Born, arrived with a narrative about Tweedy struggling with drug use, migraines, and depression; the notion of a stinging swarm around his head would seem to fit. In the delicate, deceptively pastoral song, it’s as though he’s describing what he sees in order to avoid saying what he feels. There’s even small talk about communication—are dogs barking out of laughter or anger? Then finally comes a devastating little vignette about indirect, eyes-to-the-ground emotional exchange: “I’m assuming you got my message on your machine / I’m assuming you love me, and you know what that means.” The listener is, naturally, left to guess what that means; for Together at Last, a ruminative passage of finger-picked guitar provides only tonal clues.

That song also showcases the way Tweedy often uses natural imagery as a concrete anchor amid his abstract explorations of the mind. “The sun gets passed from tree to tree silently, then back to me,” he repeats, as if it were a calming mantra. In “Laminated Cat,” a lovely and under-heard tune from his side project Loose Fur, the seasons keep changing but Tweedy’s sense of ennui doesn’t: In summer, autumn, winter, and spring, he’s still “weeding out the weekends” with books that “know they’re not worth reading.” For “Sky Blue Sky,” he suggests, perhaps sarcastically, that a cloudless day would mean “this rotten time / wouldn’t seem so bad to me now.” “In a Future Age” puts nature’s indifference in more apocalyptic terms: “Some trees will bend and some will fall / But then again so will us all.” The newest track of Together at Last, 2011’s ”Dawned on Me,” seems to crystalize his view on the outer world: “Every night is a test / To the east from the west / The sun rises and sets / That’s the sun at it’s best.”

The predictability of sunrise and seasonal change also, thematically, stands in contrast to the unruliness within Tweedy’s narrators. Together at Last opens with the disturbing, famous lines of “Via Chicago”: “I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt all right to me.” In addition to bolstering the love-is-violent motif of 1999’s Summerteeth, the words are a sign of Tweedy’s interest in the subconscious: The entire track portrays someone pushed and pulled by inner forces they’re not in control of, in a manner comparable to how Tweedy has described his songwriting process. He tackles a similar theme more perkily on “I’m Always in Love,” in which he seems bewildered by his own feelings of affection. “I don’t get the connection,” he confesses.

That mysteriousness of connection, more than anything, seems to be Tweedy’s obsession. “Hummingbird” plays as an impressionistic but unusually legible short story about a wanderer—someone who, as with so many other Tweedy songs, seems allergic to forming lasting bonds. But bonds are made nevertheless, as seen in the kiss-off chorus that describes the way the mind recalls a relationship: “Remember to remember me / Standing still in your past / floating fast like a hummingbird.” And the wrenching “Ashes of American Flags” can be parsed as a shut-in’s stream of consciousness, the hazy testimony of someone who says they “shake like a toothache when I hear myself sing.” For Tweedy, the fear of expression is the fear of one’s own desire—“All my lies are only wishes.”

The kind of deciphering I’ve been doing here, it should be noted, is tentative and incomplete—as analysis basically always has to be with lyrics and poetry. What does “Crawling is screw faster lash / I blow it with kisses” from “Via Chicago” mean? No idea. Tweedy is fascinated by the way both emotion and art can’t quite be reduced to straightforward language, but he’s also fascinated by the fact that we keep trying. “I wonder why we listen to poets when nobody gives a fuck,” he asks on “Ashes of American Flags,” and his catalogue itself is an answer.