In 1996, Jeff Tweedy and his then-iteration of Wilco used a sprawling and ambitious 19-song album to break free from the constraints of the alt-country tag that had continued to trail the still fairly new band formed in the wake of Uncle Tupelo’s split. That album, Being There, surprised listeners at the time with its sonic versatility, claustrophobic introspection, and free-form exploration. It was visionary and strategically thought-out, masterminded by Tweedy to lessen his music’s backstory and instead bring a renewed sense of purpose to his current mindset, both artistically and personally. In addition to embarking on new professional responsibilities, Tweedy, at the time, was also taking on major accountability on the home front, as well, as he and wife Sue Miller Tweedy welcomed their first son Spencer into the world. Fast forward to the present, and things have come full circle, as Spencer has grown up, graduated high school and joined his father as the drummer in a new family-oriented project simply entitled Tweedy. Their resulting album, Sukierae with 20 tracks spaced out over an hour-plus running time, hearkens back to Being There in terms of sprawl and ambition, but serves as a much different statement of purpose for Tweedy compared to the last time he released a project of this stature.
2014 has been a trying year for the Tweedy family, which also includes younger son, Sam, credited here on Sukierae as an executive producer. Sue has been battling an unfortunate re-occurrence of cancer and the family has closed the ranks to rally around her as she works towards a hopeful recovery. In various press interviews in advance of the album’s release, Tweedy has indicated that it was this family togetherness that brought father and son together to record the album, upon which they also appropriately bestowed Sue’s nickname as its’ title. The duo set up shop in the family-owned Chicago loft studio and went to work, jamming away at a surprisingly (considering the bountiful body of work brought to each Wilco album) dense catalog of songs before whittling things into the two discs of material released as the final album. In this digital age, releasing this much material at once always invites the possibility that some of it will be passed over and randomized, but the Tweedys have indicated that each disc was designed to be treated separately as listening experiences rather than consumed as a cohesive whole. With this mindset, it’s a little easier to digest the songs, but still difficult to escape the obviously appropriate thematic shadows of family renewal, everyday struggle, and search for meaning that hang over the proceedings.
However one chooses to consume Sukierae, a great collection of songs will be the reward. There aren’t a lot of sing-along, hand-clapping numbers to be found, (save for the infectiously catchy “Summer Noon” and the oft-kilter album-opening “Please Don’t Let Me Be Understood”). Instead there are deftly picked acoustic gems that generally play towards the above mentioned themes. If one were correlating Spencer’s inclusion in the band as an opportunity for papa Jeff to get playful and light-hearted, one will be sorely mistaken. “World Away”, “Wait for Love” and “Honey Combed” seem to find Tweedy longing to seize the moment and celebrate the here and now rather than worry about troubles that may be lingering about unresolved. “New Moon” and “Low Key” see Tweedy basking in the glow of a loving commitment despite admitting to hang-ups and intrusions that may have interfered along the way. Elsewhere, “High As Hello” and “Down From Above” stand out as boozy hangover anthems where the reckoning awaits on the other side of a comedown: “Down from above / I know / It’s only love / Until it goes / The world is filled with sadness / Your darkness falls on me / Where will you go/Where will you be?” Tweedy excels at wordplay along the course of this album, making heavy sentiments resonate with a few, simply phrased words.
Already a drumming prodigy with some stellar credits to his name, Spencer probably needed little introductory direction to the nuances and technical degrees of studio recording. His playing is meticulous and finely tuned, melodic and in time, yet never overly flashy or dramatic. He stretches out and lets loose at times-particularly on the jittery “Diamond Light Pt. 1” and on “World Away” which allows him the chance to showcase a little Levon Helm shuffle-but for the most part, his is a style that fits the subdued nature of the album, reminiscent at times of the legendary ‘60s and ‘70s session men who quietly kept the time behind legendary folk rockers.
Certainly not a typical “solo” outing in a traditional sense, Sukierae’s gently understated songs hover about over the course of repeated listens and demand attention in subtle, yet meaningful ways. In a time of crisis, Jeff Tweedy has turned to family and craft to sort through the emotions, bringing a stirring and intimate compilation to fruition.