from A Ghost Is Born
“Handshake Drugs” begins with the rather insipid lyric “I was chewing gum for something to do.” The boredom inherent in the opening line, though, kicks off an adventure involving saxophones that blow the speaker down, continually moving taxi cabs, and the eponymous “handshake drugs”, which might represent Jeff Tweedy’s migraine medication, the unrequited handshakes of fawning fans, or, you know, literally the kind of drugs you might buy downtown. Nevertheless, the track is notable for its steady, strut-like groove juxtaposed with noisy, experimental guitar layers. It also seems to come from a starkly honest place. By the end of the song, the speaker is repeating the line “It’s OK for you to say what you want from me / I believe that’s the only way for me to be exactly what you want me to be.” Whatever the meaning of the song’s “handshake drugs”, this tune is clearly about trying to be someone you are not for the sake of another. The sense of exasperation in Tweedy’s voice seems painfully real.
from A Ghost Is Born
“At Least That’s What We Said” kicks off A Ghost Is Born with a whimper, not a bang. The song’s brief lyrical section realistically depicts a relationship suffering from a lack of communication (“Maybe if I leave you’ll want me to come back home / Maybe all you mean is leave me alone / At least that’s what you said”). This opening track, though, quickly establishes the fact that A Ghost Is Born is about musical more than lyrical innovation. After the brief opening lyrics, Wilco embarks on a journey that in lesser hands could come off as jam band pretension. Jeff Tweedy’s tortured guitar solo is purportedly an audio representation of the pain he feels during the migraine spells he suffers from. In the context of the song, though, it sounds more like the violent emotions building up inside the hearts of uncommunicative lovers, ready to come brimming to the surface.
from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
By now, it’s pretty much a critical cliché to point out the fact that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a record thought to reflect America’s downtrodden mood and unique obsessions following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, begins with the line “I am an American”. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, though, isn’t so much about the anxieties of an entire nation as the insecurities of the song’s drunken, jaded protagonist. Lines with such clarity as “What was I thinking when I let go of you” and “You were so right when you said I’ve been drinking” are juxtaposed with the surrealism of “let’s forget about the tongue-tied lightning” and “take off your band-aid ‘cause I don’t believe in touchdowns”. The song seems to be about a semi-delusional man trying to reconnect with a former lover on a drink-filled night. Thematically, it establishes the feelings of emotional and lyrical distance that will haunt the entire record. Musically, the song’s layers of diverse, often random, sounds cement the fact that this will be a sonically challenging, yet endlessly fascinated album.
from Kicking Television
It often takes bands several albums to start getting all “meta” and reflecting on the nature of their own existence as a musical unit. It only took Tweedy two records, though. “Misunderstood” is the opener from the band’s sophomore effort “Being There,” although I’ve included the version from the live record Kicking Television here because it has become one of the most exciting parts of the band’s live sets. “Misunderstood” tells the story of a musician who returns to his former hometown only to find that he is not as appreciated or “understood” by his former friends as he would have liked. Lines like “You think you’ll just climb back in bed / With a fortune inside your head” suggest that the musician has much more potential than he is actually utilizing, a message rendered powerful by a band in the early stages of their career. The song’s repeated final line of “I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all” can be read as the song’s protagonist talking to his former friends, Tweedy ironically talking to his audience, or both. Tweedy is known to repeat this line with an obsessively feverish emotional intensity for minutes at a time at Wilco’s live shows.