Sukierae, a collaboration between Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his 18-year-old son, Spencer, wears its dad-rock bona fides proudly. The album takes its title from a nickname of Tweedy’s wife of nearly 20 years, Sue, who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year (the prognosis is reportedly good, though the scare certainly informs the album’s mood and subject matter). Appropriately, then, Sukierae ruminates heavily on growing up, marriage, fatherhood, and the alternately blissful and uneasy life of the Tweedy family.
This focus allows Tweedy to return, at times, to the elliptical introspection that characterized the lyrical style of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born: “Behold the drift of a distant sun/Cold as my own heart,” he sings on “Fake Fur Coat.” It gives him room to be more nakedly autobiographical than he’s ever been, as on the uncharacteristically straightforward but cute romantic sentiments of the woozy love songs “Wait for Love,” “New Moon,” and “Where My Love,” and especially on the clearly self-descriptive “Low Key” (“I don’t jump for joy/When I get excited, nobody knows”). The latter is one of the most endearing songs the notoriously laconic Tweedy has ever written, not to mention one of the catchiest, most radiant power-pop tunes he’s produced since Wilco’s Summerteeth.
Beyond the mildly garage-y single “I’ll Sing It” and the opening dissonant punk pastiche “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood” (whose title recalls not only the similarly named Animals classic, but also Tweedy’s own “Misunderstood”), Sukierae fulfills the self-diagnosis of “Low Key”: It’s a very laidback effort, featuring Tweedy once and for all going full mumblecore with his vocals atop mostly pared-down arrangements executed almost entirely by Jeff and Spencer. Although there are some backing vocals by Lucius’s Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig and a bit of piano by Minus 5 frontman Scott McCaughey, the album, recorded at the famous Wilco Loft in Chicago, has a homemade feel. In true 21st-century DIY fashion, several of the album’s tracks were even built up from solo acoustic demos Jeff recorded on his iPhone.
Tweedy is woefully underrated as a lead guitarist, and it turns out his son has a knack for veering in and around the beat that endows the songs with looseness and verve. Spencer is the star of the stuttering done epic “Diamond Light Pt. 1” and the mantra-like “Slow Love,” and Sukierae’s dullest patches come when he doesn’t play. With his boxy snare sound and swervy sense of rhythm, Spencer is even reminiscent of Levon Helm as a drummer (especially evident on the mildly Band-like “World Away,” which transcends ’70s hoariness thanks to Papa Tweedy’s overdubbed swarm of hornet’s-nest guitars).
The Tweedys’ deftness generates a palpable sense of intimacy, but the album drags on so long through so many wistful ballads that, by the end of the two-disc, 20-song collection, the intimacy begins to feel a bit like listlessness. It doesn’t help that, like many of the ’70s double albums that Tweedy clearly modeled Sukierae after, the album is frontloaded with all the most adventurous and immediate material and slows down considerably on the back half. There are a few excellent tracks on the second disc, like the lilting “Flowering,” the gentle, Pavement-esque “Down from Above,” and the captivatingly atmospheric, early Dylan-esque “Fake Fur Coat.” But cumulatively, it feels like there are just a few too many leftovers. It speaks to Tweedy’s skill and experience as a songwriter that what is essentially the aural equivalent of him spending 72 minutes of quiet time with his family doesn’t get boring sooner.