Saturday, March 9, 2019

Wilco, "Shot In The Arm"

I heard today is the 20th anniversary of the release of Wilco's Summerteeth. This news, of course, has me feeling like I am getting too damn old. It came out when I was living in Chicago and Wilco was playing local shows all the time. I still like to think of my Chicago days as my recent past, but they are actually now a long, long time ago.

That album shocked me when I first heard it because I had been there for Wilco's beginning when it was the lesser of the offshoots of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo. The band's second album, the masterful Being There, rocked out more and showed greater maturity, but it was still grounded in roots music. None of that could prepare me for Summerteeth, which completely eschewed any country vibes, as well as the easy-going humor of songs like "Casino Queen" and "Monday." Songs like "She's a Jar" and "Via Chicago" are some real dark night of the soul stuff.

It took a little bit for this album to sink its teeth into me, but "Shot In The Arm" was the song that did the trick. It has one of the great first lines of all time, "The ashtray says you were up all night." That one line tells a story, and it isn't a pleasant one.

It references lost love, depression, feelings of failure, and drug addiction ("Something in my veins/bloodier than blood.") Despite those themes it is uptempo and driving, like the manic side of a bipolar episode. It's song of someone who feels shot up and beaten down by life trying to maintain a sliver of hope about the future. "Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm"is an attempt at optimism in the face of crushing depression. I listened to this song a lot during a two-year period in graduate school where I frequently had bouts of severe depression. (Which I stupidly let go untreated.) I found the song reassuring, because there was someone out there feeling what I was feeling.

The song is also a little meta, with the repeated line "What you were once isn't what you want to be any more." This seems to be a comment on Wilco itself and the new music it was making. There is a kind of desperation on this song that perhaps speaks to Jeff Tweedy's need to break free from the limited musical palate he had found himself using. The band's next album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, would complete the process.

Above all, Summerteeth was Jay Bennett's showcase, more than any other Wilco album. "Shot in the Arm" is driven by keyboards and has the eerie synth and mellotron sounds that Bennett added to these tracks like a studio mad scientist. They make this rather catchy song considerably weirder, while adding to the emotional feeling of coming unhinged imparted by the song's lyrics.

Bennett was the friend of a friend, and I even got to have dinner with him once at my friend's house. I could tell from our meeting that Jay might have been the kind of person who was hard to work with, but he was also friendly, funny, generous, and full of creative energy. I can't listen to this song or the album it comes from without thinking about his untimely death, or that short time I got to spend in his presence. Wilco might be synonymous with Tweedy, but it would never have been able to reach its highest creative heights without the shot in the arm it got from Jay Bennett.

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