I have no idea how this happens– Wilco
All of my maps have been overthrown
‘You Are My Face’
Fifteen years ago, American alternative rock band Wilco released their sixth studio album, Sky Blue Sky. Adding multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and electric guitar virtuoso Nels Cline to the existing group of Mikael Jorgensen, Glenn Kotche, John Stiratte, and Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s 2007 release sported the largest configuration of the band to date. After shaking loose from the confines of the alt-country label—a leftover residue of Wilco’s emergence from Uncle Tupelo’s breakup—they made a splash with experiments in pop song structures, art rock, and straight ahead extended guitar solos. The daring gamble to take the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album Reprise Records rejected and release it for free on the fledgling internet solidified their experimental chops.
A meditatively reflective album that dwelt on the mundane shifts in the currents of adult life, Sky Blue Sky initiated some lukewarm reactions at its release. Some saw it as safe, a retreat into adult contemporary. But, looking back on this album after a decade and a half, I think it poses an intriguing question,
Can there be such a thing as “middle-aged rock”?
After all, isn’t rock ‘n’ roll the language of restless youth, pushing against the constraints of expectations and the pressure to conform to the world inhabited by their parents and grandparents? Isn’t it precisely the adolescent reaction to observing their middle-aged parents and teachers? A rebellious no to the compromises they refuse to make like those who came before them?
“We’ve got to get out while we’re young,” after all.
Doesn’t rock ‘n’ roll carry the whiff of danger within it? An anti-authoritarian undercurrent pulses within its many manifestations, whether punk’s middle finger to the machine and the -isms that comprise it or rock’s dalliance with sexual awakening. Rock ‘n’ roll pulses with the electrical charge of the birth pangs of freedom. It’s sneaking into that club when you were underage. It’s that record that convinces your parents that—despite their years of effort—the unraveling has begun. It is the soundtrack of rebellion, the hypnotic beat of independence.
“Hey, hey, my, my / Rock and roll can never die.”
But, can it age?
We do. That may not seem self-evident in a culture that valorizes youth and markets denial strategies with wanton abandon. “Age is just a number.” “40 is the new 20.” The slogans are endless, and they feed the machine that fuels the addiction to denial. One could argue that the success of the legacy act industry is due in no small part to a desire to periodically fire up the flux capacitor in the DeLorean and spend a few hours with the soundtrack of our youth, seeking one more fix from the music that used to pulse through our beings with the intensity that fueled our belief in endless summers.
But time is a relentless menace. And despite the quasi-religious intensity with which we grasp at the myth of endless possibility, we reach a point where life pries that faith from our fingers. If we’re fortunate, we live long enough to accumulate our share of mistakes and failures. We are always—as MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya points out in his book, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide—caught in a “twofold temporality” between various possible futures and past choices that give those choices meaning. What we call “crisis” has its roots in the awareness that there are no longer (or never wore) unlimited futures and, very often, our past active or passive choices have foreclosed paths. It’s a heady, transitional time.
During the making of Wilco’s 2004 album, A Ghost Is Born, frontman Jeff Tweedy was in his late thirties and struggling with a growing addiction to Vicodin, which had become a means for him to deal with panic attacks and severe migraines. In his biography, Tweedy states that he was in a space where he felt he was going to die while recording that album. “Every song we recorded seemed likely to be my last,” Tweedy confessed. He imagined his sons retrospectively poring over the album after his demise, sussing out messages from their dad’s state of mind in the jolting passages of whispered musings and the discordant noise (Tweedy’s attempt to give musical expression to his migraines) that marked A Ghost Is Born.
But in this moment of dark struggle, Jeff Tweedy checked into rehab and began the journey of self-examination that led toward sobriety. Sky Blue Sky emerges in this vulnerable space of old scars and new growth. There were new band members, and Tweedy experimented with new outlooks and patterns. He shares in Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. that the 2007 album Sky Blue Sky appeared at a time when he was still learning how to take care of himself.
“Either Way” (which Tweedy confesses is just a simple rewriting of the Serenity Prayer) opens the album with a gentle tentativeness and measured approach to what possibilities are on the table once we discover we aren’t always the heroes of our own stories. A simple, gentle acoustic guitar riff emerges from the left channel, grounding the listener and the song in the inevitable march of time. Tweedy appears from the right channel after a bit, softly musing on each day’s tenuousness. This uncertainty is always present, but life and our choices can humble us to a recognition of the many ways we’ve thought reality bends to our will. Amid this interplay between the acoustic guitar’s mantra and Tweedy’s grappling with the inevitable uncertainty of each moment, the first of many of Nels Cline’s lush guitar solos breaks into the conversation.
Cline’s adept guitar mastery shines amidst the precarious clouds but never overwhelms the landscape. His notes are jazz-like, hinting at the inevitable improvisation that the fractures of life call forth. Nowhere is this seen as grandly as it is in the enigmatic composition, “Impossible Germany”. The most cryptic of Tweedy’s songs on an album composed of mainly straightforward vulnerability, “Impossible Germany” orbits around the fragile connection of two metaphors, “impossible Germany and unlikely Japan”. It is unsettling and unresolved even as Tweedy proclaims that love’s purpose is to be out of place.
At three minutes in, the lyrics give way to Cline’s extended solo for the remaining 2:57 of the song. It is a compelling, almost hypnotic display of mastery of the instrument without descending into overwhelming gestures. It is the recognition that something is transfixing about the unresolved and incomplete, converted here into a minor symphony for the guitar and led by Cline’s adept virtuosity before being joined in conversation by Tweedy’s and Pat Sansone’s electric guitars. Together, they form a crescendo of intertwined call-and-response chords giving voice to the beauty of that which evades neat description.
There are no grand anthems or bold assurances that what lies ahead will be easily conquered by the righteousness of rock-n-roll. The claims are tentative and vulnerable, with a shelf life that promises no guarantees beyond the moment. But isn’t this precisely the unexpected wisdom that our limits teach us, that reduced expectations accompany no less miraculous possibilities? As Tweedy relates in the title track, “I should be satisfied / I survived / That’s good enough for now.”
Lest we get lured into a false sense of comfort, there’s nothing necessarily safe about the mundane observations of this album. It isn’t a revolutionary cry against the status quo or a woeful jeremiad. It simply and forthrightly recognizes that life is often a chaotic mess, and, as Tweedy emotes in the tonal shift of “You Are My Face”, we find our carefully drawn maps overthrown. Happenstance mocks the “master of our fate” myth.
So, it may be that the passage of time erodes our previously blind faith in unlimited excitement. But, perhaps, it heightens our sensitivity to the possibility of beauty in our midst. We always have choices. “When the mysteries we believe in / Aren’t dreamed enough to be believed / Some side with the leaves / Some side with the seeds,” Tweedy suggests in “Side With the Seeds” that while the choices aren’t unlimited and our failings have foreclosed some options, there are still choices to be made. We learn the crucial difference between the myth of infinite possibilities and the power of choice for finite hope. In the midst of foreclosing futures, we discover the beauty of connection. “Embracing the situation / Is our only chance to be free / I’ll side with you / If you side with me.”
The paradox of mid-life lies within the seemingly counterintuitive recognition that we truly begin to live only within the possibility of a hard stop. This delicate balance closes Sky Blue Sky in “On and On and On” as Jeff Tweedy pleads, “Please don’t cry / We’re designed to die.”
The cycle marches on.
Is there such a thing as “middle-aged rock”? I don’t know. There are contradictions and implications to be untangled. Or maybe they should just lie fallow. If there is such a genre, I think it would sound like Sky Blue Sky with its measured simplicity and reflective intensity. Either way, it’s ok.