Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy has always been good at evoking his duplicitous feelings to shade his characters with contrapuntal depth; think of the woman trapped in his longings for, and resentments toward, her on Summerteeth’s “She’s a Jar.” With Schmilco, however, he goes further and actually confronts his own contradictions. On “Normal American Kids,” he describes how he used to “hate normal American kids” because he was “afraid” of them. The blurred line between hate and fear isn’t an exploitable songwriting gamut, but an acknowledgement of something he’s overcoming, something he has to place within the boundaries of a word like “remind.” When he sings, “Something like me/You don’t wanna be,” on “Cry All Day,” the advice would be self-pitying and trite, the kind of half-baked angst often ascribed to “dad rock,” if it didn’t sound like Tweedy was beginning to accept that advice himself.
Tweedy’s songwriting has achieved previously unheard dimensions of clarity and emotionality. On “Happiness,” a song about his late mother, he expresses how he was too dissatisfied with himself to accept her love (“My mother says I’m great/And it always makes me sad/I don’t think she’s being nice/I really think she believes that”), but he finds solace in knowing that “the dead still listen/She sings a part in every refrain.” He may have been detached from her when she was alive, but his spirt commingles with hers in song. It’s this view of music as a connection between the past and the present, the dead and the living, the happy and the sad, that aligns Tweedy’s spirit, not just with his mother’s, but with the spirit of country music Wilco is drawing on for the first time since their early output, and this time with more success.
That sound, however, might make the album’s lead single, “Locator,” turn out to be a rub for fans expecting Wilco to continue on the garage-rock trajectory of last year’s Star Wars. It’s also the only song with something like a guitar solo, unless the pizzicato on “Common Sense” counts, but it’s incongruous with the rest of Schmilco. The band is relegated to providing plaintive backing throughout, but they can still accomplish some remarkable feats, like the piano tremolos and ambient whistles on “We Aren’t the World Safety Girl” that imbue Tweedy’s remembrance of school with a dreamy quality, and the chord changes on “If I Ever Was a Child” and “Quarters” where the finger slides make the strings groan and sigh to match Tweedy’s mournful singing.
Schmilco is a deeply personal work. It’s also an album that so sincerely accepts maturation beyond supposed stasis, or prurient middle-age crises, that it should make us drop the term “dad rock” as a pejorative and accept that it can also be used as a description of high art.