The Whole Love: More ‘Jesus, Etc.’ from Wilco
Late last month my wife and I buzzed up to Boston to catch Wilco, the long-suffering folk-rock group out of Chicago, in advance of their new album, The Whole Love (click here to listen via Spotify). Led, in a sort of disconsolate slouch, by songwriter Jeff Tweedy, Wilco was once a poster child for the desultory pop genre called indie rock. But Wilco has become something bigger: not only a big seller but more professionally packaged onstage and online, and more ambitious artistically. In its choice of instruments—lap steel to digitized loops—and its influences—the Dead, Woody Guthrie, and early punk—Wilco is verging on becoming, as I someone in my row in Boston called them, the Great American Rock and Roll band.
I bring Wilco up on this blog because Tweedy’s music is as Christ-haunted as the American landscape itself. Christianity comes up on nearly every Wilco album—in the voice of a skeptic, in words that sound like genuine praise, and in closely observed moments from the pews. “You’ll stand each Sunday / a hymnal steady in your hand,” a soldier sings to his wife in “I’ll Fight” (click here to listen via Spotify). “You’ll sing to yourself the rising falling melody / that you could never read/without the choir’s lead.
“I’ll Fight” is Tweedy’s Iraq War song from his 2009 album, Wilco, The Album (or maybe his Civil War song; the 40-something Tweedy affects the extravagantly unkempt look of a Matthew Brady battlefield portrait). The song’s soldier goes on to sing of the trade he’s made with the civilians he left behind, and the deal is as spiritual as it is civic: “If I die / I’ll die alone / Like Jesus on the cross / My faith will not be tossed / My life will not be lost / if my love comes across.”
Devout as that sounds, Tweedy has made statements that suggest he’s not a churchgoer. And the quaint explicitness of “I’ll Fight” makes it sound like more like quoted matter than Tweedy’s own theologizing. On the last track of the new album, “On Sunday Morning (For Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” a man tells how deeply his father’s biblically sourced prejudices scarred their relationship. “My father said what I had become / No one should be,” Tweedy sings mournfully. But in an interview, Tweedy has confirmed that the song is based on a conversation with the novelist Smiley’s companion at a dinner party. Wilco’s rapture-ready “Airline to Heaven,” is literally a quote–a setting of lyrics by Guthrie: “Them’s got ears, let ‘em hear / Them’s got eyes, let ‘em see / Turn your eyes to the Lord of the skies.” A dedicated folkie, Tweedy has defended the place of “representational art” in music. Religion may work its way into his songs just as church spires or revival tents naturally figure in paintings by Thomas Hart Benton or Grant Wood.
But nothing in Wilco’s world is ever so cut and dried. As Tweedy sings about heartache from the heartland, broken factory windows and love confused by substance abuse, God gets mixed in with pain, everyday redemption, and random experience. Skeptics are as undone by their mistrust of faith as believers are by their conviction. In “Jesus, Etc.,” from 2001, the Lord’s name in the title turns out to be an imprecation and a plea—“Jesus, don’t cry,” the singer says to his girl, but by the end of the song God comes back in as a dispenser of love: “Our love is all we have/Our love is all of God’s money.”
In other words, Tweedy’s thrashing out of religious themes sounds like a genuine discussion, one you’d have with your kids or close friends. His spiritual self waffles, pushes back, despairs. In Boston, the band played a track off the new album called “Born Alone” that is full of provocative spiritual images, from the opening line, “I have heard the war and worry of the gospel ferried fast across the void,” to the bleak conclusion, “I was born to die alone.” As this existential rant faded away and the band rounded into an old favorite about a casual drug buy, a shout went up. Tweedy is not selling Christian religion or, it doesn’t seem likely, buying it. But he’s certainly dragged it and its issues out to the places where it all started.