Jeff Tweedy is doing OK. As the lead singer and primary songwriter of the alt-rock band Wilco, his highs, lows, and middling plateaus have made their way into a total of 10 albums over the past 22 years. He leaves a diaristic record of feeling in his wake, a lyrical journey shielded from straight confessionalism by the band’s persistent dedication to technique. On the spectrum of “sad rock dudes,” Wilco share more with Elliott Smith’s polite and careful studio work than with Nirvana’s raw power. But Tweedy is no Smith, nor is he an echo of Kurt Cobain. He survived, for one. He’s doing OK.
On their 10th album, Schmilco, Wilco revisit the gentleness that inflected some of their best work on 1996’s Being There and 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. They also bring in some of the playfulness of 2015’s Star Wars, a carefree and often raucous release that sees the band leaving its loose threads untamed. The last two album titles alone indicate that Wilco is done taking themselves quite as seriously as they did on 2011’s radio-friendly The Whole Love, which came coated in a lot of polish and occasionally saw Tweedy performing his best Tom Petty impression. The Whole Love’s singles got airplay, but Schmilco’s core runs deeper.
Throughout the album’s mostly acoustic moments, Tweedy is content to tell stories — about himself, his family, his history. It’s not the same nostalgia that powered retrospective glances at bygone teenage years like Yankee’s “Heavy Metal Drummer.” Schmilco brings Tweedy all the way back to his boyhood, to his very first feelings of alienation in midwestern America, to the people who colored his earliest memories.
He goes back to the dive where his grandfather worked on “Quarters,” describing the drunks who would ask about him while he looked on in silence. He offers this vignette without commentary, simply letting the scene play out, but it’s easy to connect it to his struggles with substance abuse, which would color many of Wilco’s earlier albums. “Happiness” introduces another ghost: that of Tweedy’s mother, whose blanket approval both saddens and empowers him even now. "I know the dead still listen / She sings a part of every refrain,” he sings.
Wilco treat these stories with enough care that they are insulated from too much sentimentality. When Tweedy looks at his awkward former self on “Normal American Kids,” he does so with no desire to be that person again. Instead, he finds a place for those memories within who he is now, decades later — a place free from judgment or guilt. He remembers his own misery, getting high alone in his parents’ house as a teen, without indulging it. This is who he is. This is why.
Alienation runs deep throughout Tweedy’s work, and many of his albums treat it with frustration. Yankee saw him drinking booze by the aquarium, and 2004’s A Ghost Is Born started with an electric guitar recreation of a panic attack. The 2002 Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart included a scene where Tweedy vomits from a stress-intensified migraine in the middle of a recording session. On Schmilco, he touches on that suffering with a comfortable spaciousness. Instead of Yankee’s collapsing scenery, bummer tracks like “Cry All Day” offer a steady chug of acoustic guitar and cascading percussion. There’s sadness here but no danger, no risk of the world falling apart.
Live with the same battered brain long enough, and eventually your pain starts to bore you. That boredom can be a relief, in a way: You know what to expect from yourself, and you’re no longer shocked by your own cycles of suffering. Schmilco visits that melancholy boredom with enough affection to offer comfort from it. By this point, Tweedy seems amused by his own history of depression and panic and drug abuse, like he figured out that laughing at his pain was a surer way of surviving it than trying to fight it head-on. “When nothing is left, rejoice,” he sings on a track called “Shrug and Destroy,” like the inevitable emptiness of life and death is as good a reason to dance as anything else.
A strain of hope carries Schmilco, though it’s not the superhero hope that younger people might champion in order to get through the day. Wilco never peddled the fist-in-the-air defiance of more marketable modern rock songs. On “If I Ever Was a Child,” Jeff Tweedy, dad, modest rock star, and still living human, sings, “I hope for the kind of pain I can take.” At the end of the day, who doesn’t?