New Wilco Songs Explore Dark Themes

Folk-rock band's singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy performs new numbers from recording during solo acoustic show.

CHICAGO -- While details such as an album title and some

song names have yet to be shored up, the next release by folk-rockers

Wilco is taking shape as a dark statement.

During a solo acoustic set Thursday for a tightly packed crowd at Lounge Ax, Jeff Tweedy, Wilco's singer, songwriter and guitarist, performed several of the new songs -- including "Via Chicago," "Shot In The Arm" (also known as "Ashtray Sez"), "She's A Jar" (a.k.a. "Fragile Family Tree"), "I'm Always In Love" and "Candyfloss."

Stephanie Turner, a spokeswoman with the band's Margherita Management company, said that while Tweedy's songwriting for the disc -- tentatively titled Summer Teeth and due Feb. 23 -- is still rooted in traditional Americana, fans will be surprised nonetheless by the music. "It's like nothing you've ever heard before," proclaimed Turner, who was otherwise hesitant to describe the work.

If Thursday's show was any indication, the album will continue searching the dark corners that the band explored to critical acclaim on its latest effort, Being There (1996).

"Shot In The Arm" is a particularly haggard number, though Tweedy's desolate performance Thursday was probably compounded by the fact that he was suffering from a migraine after having returned to Chicago from Los Angeles earlier in the day.

Bent over at the mic, the scruffy-looking singer fixed on the repeated lyric "Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm/ Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm/ Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm." With every line, his delivery ratcheted up the despair. "Something in my veins bloodier than blood," he sang.

"Via Chicago," meanwhile, seemed to have a kinship with the haunted nature of Appalachian murder ballads. "I dreamed about killing you again last night/ And it felt all right to me," Tweedy, 31, sang. "I buried you alive in a fireworks display raining down on me."

Even a song with a title as hopeful-sounding as "I'm Always In Love" veered off into uncomfortable territory. While Tweedy opened the song with romantic images, such as, "While I catch the moon like a bird in a cage," by the number's end he sounded slightly scared and a bit unstable. "I'm worried," he sang, "I'm always in love."

On Friday, Reprise Records spokesman Bill Bentley revealed that the new album, Wilco's third, will contain 12-14 songs. Although recording for the disc is complete, the band ducked into a Chicago studio last week to record another song not destined for the album, Bentley said.

For Marc Nikolic, a longtime fan of Wilco and of Tweedy's predecessor band, Uncle Tupelo, the Lounge Ax show offered an intimate look at Tweedy's creativity. "It's better hearing the songs raw like this first. I like that more than with the band," Nikolic, who drove an hour and a half from Milwaukee for the show, said.

While the new material was an attraction for Nikolic, Tweedy played an all-encompassing, 28-song set that touched on a variety of projects. In addition to older Wilco material -- "Box Full Of Letters," (RealAudio excerpt) from A.M. (1995), and

"Misunderstood" (RealAudio excerpt), from Being There -- Tweedy played several songs from his days as co-leader of the alternative-country band Uncle Tupelo ("Black Eye").

He opened with "Lost Love" from the recently released, Weird Tales album by Golden Smog -- the alternative-country "supergroup" he plays in along with members of the Jayhawks and power-pop legends Big Star.

Also included in the set were several songs from Mermaid Avenue, Wilco's recent collaboration with British folk singer Billy Bragg on songs with lyrics penned by American folk-icon Woody Guthrie. Another cut from Tweedy's show, the tender war-ballad "I'll Be With You When The Roses Bloom Again," is likely to be part of a second set of Guthrie material.

Among the other new tracks Tweedy offered was a cut called "Candyfloss," which, despite the acoustic setting, boasted a melody harkening back to rock's mid-'60s British Invasion. "Every time I make a rhyme/ I live my life for someone else," Tweedy sang. "I live my life like I wasn't invited."

While most of the new songs the singer performed Thursday are destined for the next Wilco album, at least one was not yet complete. After a brief but rambling lyric, one number closed with, "That's when things got weird, and I got blue -- and started growing Bob Dylan's beard."

"That's what we call a work in progress," Tweedy said.