If you are looking for a silver-lining here in the eighth month of this long COVID fever dream, perhaps you can find some solace in the number of artists that have used this down time to push back against the surrounding darkness and shine the light of their creativity. When Wilco’s Spring Tour was cancelled abruptly, singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy returned home to Chicago, where he’s lived with his family and operated a studio, The Loft, where he’s produced Wilco’s latest albums, his solo records and made albums with Mavis Staples and Richard Thompson.
Evidently, while many of us have been binge watching Netflix, the Tweedy’s have been producing an informal live show featuring original music and covers on Jeff’s wife Susan’s Instagram, 4 nights a week at 9 pm called “The Tweedy Show,” which has coincided with his goal of writing and recording a song a day with his two sons, Spencer and Sammy. The result is a third solo album of original material, Love Is The King, played entirely by Tweedy and his sons. In what was left of his spare time, Tweedy also wrote a book with an instructive title: “How to Write One Song.”
Tweedy is no novice to the written page; he authored “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back); A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc.” was published on Penguin Random House in 2018. And when I say his newest solo album is his third that skips over his 2014 album with his son Spencer, Sukierae, under the band moniker Tweedy. At the tail end of 2018, Tweedy returned with a solo album, WARM, which was followed the next summer by Warmer, just in time for Record Store Day. Along with the intimacy that came with Tweedy’s solo work, there was the added benefit of an increased comfort at visiting some of the country roots vibe that fueled some of his early work in the band Uncle Tupelo.
Throughout Love Is The King and most directly on the title track, Tweedy is wrestling with the dualities of existence: “Life isn’t fair/Love is the king.” And that tension is given expression in the music, the accessible melodic folk song on the one hand, and a guitar solo that reeks of the pain of sickness, struggle and death. If you can imagine a guitar ugly crying, teeth on edge, notes stretching the song’s key beyond its limits, that’s the sound you hear. Besides singing lead, and writing all the songs, Tweedy is playing all the guitars, including the bass and the leads, most of which are quite musical and pleasant on the ears, as opposed to the one on the opening track. Spencer Tweedy, his older son, plays drums throughout, while his younger brother Sammy sings most of the harmony vocals with his Dad.
Counter-intuitively, the songs on Love Is The King feel warmer, more openly sentimental than previous efforts. Highlights include a nature hymn, “A Robin Or A Wren,” which was written with George Saunders who described Tweedy as “our great, wry, American consolation poet” in the liner notes for WARM. “Gwendolyn,” “Natural Disaster” and “Guess Again,” feel like late 60’s era pop & roll, with fun guitar sounds, the first dreaming of home, the second caught up in the tragedy of falling in love or not ever falling in love, and the last which says that “the best thing I’ll ever do… It’s you.”
In the song, “Save It For Me,” Tweedy provides an exhibit of one of the word exercises in his book suggested for would be songwriters, writing down words in a stream of consciousness without concern for their meaning as a way to discover fresh ways to sing about a thing. “A rainbow word in a mouth of clouds,” he sings, acknowledging “darkened days,” before concluding “save it for me/when the world falls apart/I can say with certainty/There’s a reason/A light left on in an empty room/Is how a love can be/Is all love can be.” It’s such a good feeling, that Tweedy whistles a melody for the song’s solo section. The real world may be having a “Bad Day Lately,” but in “Even I Can See” Tweedy finds some sense of the divine in the company of his wife: “I laugh and I cry/I live and I die/By her side.” Both songs offer very different examples of Tweedy’s guitar work, electric on the first, and a delightful finger picked acoustic solo in the second.
As he suggests in the two closing songs, Tweedy feels “Troubled” and knows himself well enough to know that the “trouble’s still me,” even though “my best moments are with you.” At the same time, even “Half-Asleep” and unsure of his surroundings he repeats the mantra with confidence, “When you need me/I’ll be there.” Likely this is another song celebrating the love and care he’s found in his family, but in a way it’s also about the gift of music and those things in life that sustain us even in the most challenging of times. In this season, to be sure, Love Is The King is one of those things.
Key Tracks: “Gwendolyn” / “A Robin Or A Wren” / “Natural Disaster”
Artists With Similar Fire: Uncle Tupelo / Alejandro Escovedo / The Jayhawks
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb