Last night I listened to Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and tried to love it as ardently as people more or less like me seem to, but I failed. Sure, I mean, I’m one of the men who loves “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” scrape the softer underbelly of pop heaven, the place where songs exist that can’t actually be written by men, only given out like welfare checks from God. But the rest of it? Ehhhhh… I don’t like trying to figure out why I can’t see the brilliance in it that everybody else sees, because if I put it into words, I look like an idiot. I always look like an idiot when I’m trying to figure things out, which is a good incentive not to try to figure things out, though it really hasn’t been enough to overpower boredom and curiosity. Hypothetically, I’d say things like, “the whole album is a bunch of atmospheric padding for five great songs,” or, “when the fuck did Jeff Tweedy get the idea that he should mix the album like Throbbing Gristle?” Or, “How on earth could anybody dig the last two songs?” The fact is, I just don’t care, and I just don’t love it, and I understand that I am, by any measure of “rocker-intellectual” conventional wisdom, wrong. I always expect the album to sink in, and it just never does. And it’s not like I’m not a Wilco fan. Summer Teeth was my jam in high school.
That said, every time I write about something I dislike, I come back to it later on and it turns out that not only do I like it, but I would post scathing comments at myself if I read my own blog post about it. And not just for my cringeworthy writing.
But today, I stuck by my guns. I pulled out Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression. Now, I’m pretty sure I have something of an unhealthy fixation on “the underdog.” Most of my favorite bands – Pavement, XTC, even the Archers of Loaf (Madonna – motherfucking MADONNA – came to one of their gigs to try to sign them to Maverick Records, but they said no, because they’re the most incredible underdog rock entity of all time) – were, at one time or another, pegged to be “the next great big fat burning band to land like a comet and crater the heart of Top 40 rock and pop.” And we’re talking, people were saying this BEFORE the British press proclaimed every cute scruffy band to ever put out an album with a guitar to be “the greatest band of all time.” Indie rock used to be pretty ugly. I miss that. It also used to lay everything on the line. I miss that even more. When was the last time you saw a show and you thought to yourself, “how the hell are they going to drive 300 miles and still do that AGAIN TOMORROW?!” It’s been a while for me.
And that is part of why No Depression is so great for me. It’s sincere. It’s sincere, it’s smart but not smartypantsed, and they were sincerely pissed, and weary, and exhausted, and excited, and it all came out as a great big ball of nervy, wiry energy. When it came out in 1990, Farrar was 24 or so, Tweedy 23, but they sound wise, and old, and beat up, and not at all pretentious or affected. But they still rock the fuck out. They don’t sound like they’re playing country songs they haven’t earned. They don’t sound like the kids who inherited a fortune because there wasn’t anybody else to give it to, like Eric Clapton playing the blooze. They sound like the kid who inherits the family business against stiff competition because he was the right choice, but he’s not even sure it’s what he wants to do.
Only a tiny hint of Tweedy’s eventually omnipresent lachrymose irony creeps in, because he’s scared shitless and totally in awe of Jay Farrar – while still being pretty much on the straight shot to perfect popsmithery in his own right. There’s no “take off your Band-Aid cuz I don’t believe in touchdowns,” great a weird line though that is. There is, instead, a fresh-faced kid telling you that, in the summer, he and his friends “wear loose clothes and try to stay cool,” which, in its way, is an equally weird and equally great line. Tweedy sings like a quarter of the songs, and they’re all great. But it’s Farrar, man. It’s Farrar.
It makes very little sense, to me, that Black Flag and the Replacements and The Carter Family and Leadbelly should exist so comfortably and capably in his voice and his songs and, especially, in his guitar. I still remember the first time I heard “Graveyard Shift,” and it was, as much as any other song, responsible for me picking up the guitar for the first time at like age 15. So obviously, my objectivity is questionable, though I’m not sure when people decided music should be perceived objectively.
I know I talk a lot about Pitchfork, but being me and not talking about them would be sort of like being Auden and not talking about Eliot. I’ve been kind of a longtime Pitchforkmedia apologist. I respect their logorrhea and their audacity in a lot of respects. But sometimes they just do a goddamn disservice to everybody. They, and by they I mean William Bowers, whom I generally like and who is obviously ridiculously smart, gave No Depression a 6.7, the lowest of any of the three UT albums reviewed, and an awfully mediocre score by any measure. 1.7 points above 5.0, which on an academic grading scale would be failing. (Bowers is an English professor or something, after all). 3.3 points, fully a third, below Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s perfect 10. Now, we all know the point-structure is arbitrary, polemical as much as it is anything else, “I was just trying to make a point” bullshit. But this one is one of the most depressingly dismissive reviews I’ve ever read, all I have no time for this and people who like this have been idiots all along. Trademark run: “But is being the forebearers [sic, subwitty neologism alert] of a genre whose proponents average two good songs per album really something to be proud of? All we need now is for some statistician to ascertain why No Depression is loved by a disproportionate amount of people with mustaches.” Har har. Wait, that’s not about the band at all. It’s about a trend and its followers. So is the whole review. That’s not very useful! Not even in a “taking stock” and “measuring the fallout” kind of way. Of course, what does he attack No Depression for the most? Oh, yeah, it’s earnestness (which misses a lot for Pitchfork, not even talking about “Graveyard Shift” as some kind of “meta”/recursive concept song about spearheading a new trend in independent music, which seems right up their alley). And I’m pretty sure there’s not a single wholeheartedly sincere sentence in the entire review. But I’m not going to read it again to see. I’m going to listen to No Depression again, because I like it. Goddamn it, I love it.