A Study In Blank Verse: Wilco Schmilco
My copy of Wilco’s new album arrived in the mail on Friday. After hearing three songs from the album earlier this summer, particularly ‘If I Ever Was A Child’, I was curious to hear the new album. I carefully slipped the shiny black disc from its sleeve and set it on the turntable. The arm lifted from its resting place and with a pop, the afternoon of musical discovery began.
Upon first impression, ‘Normal American Kids’ was an interesting start for a Wilco album. I suppose after listening to their albums for so long, I was so used to them starting their albums off in a dramatic way. ‘I Must Be High’, ‘Misunderstood’, ‘I Can’t Stand It’….need I go on? It seems that they chose to make a statement by making it as simple and as understated as possible. ‘If I Ever Was A Child’ was the second song released prior to the full release of the album; and it is my favorite of the three released. I still have a hard time remembering the lyrics, but I find myself humming the song from time to time.
As I listened to the music, something happened that I hardly ever pay attention to, which are the words. More specifically, I realized I was paying more attention to the structure of the songs. I came to realize that the songs didn’t follow the usual verse-chorus-verse structure. I opened the album jacket to see that I was right. From my days of studying as an English major, I also recognized the structure of the poems, but couldn’t come to it right away. It wasn’t until a few days that I remembered the name for the structure of the poem, blank verse. While the lyrics of Wilco Schmilco don’t strictly follow the breakdown of syllable structure, I don’t think T.S. Eliot or Henry Miller strictly adhered to the rules of blank verse. Besides, the lyrics of the album are descriptive and reflective poems, and are delivered as dramatic monologues, as described on the website, literarydevices.net. I’m fairly certain there are stressed and unstressed syllables, but trying to sort out which was which always caused me a great deal of stress. Stress would only take away from the enjoyment of the album. I didn’t want to get too academic about the review of the album; however, I was glad to be able to appreciate the music of a group I have enjoyed for years in a different light. I was aware of Jeff Tweedy’s literary influences for years by what I read in interviews, but the delivery of his art made me pay closer attention this time around. That’s a pretty cool experience to have.
‘Cry All Day’ is another song that I really enjoy. Something in the arrangement, its rollicking tempo, reminds me of a Johnny Cash tune. Yes, I am aware that Johnny Cash had a song called ‘Cry, Cry, Cry.’ Are the two songs all that different in their tone and meaning? Listen to both of them; and tell me what you think. ‘Common Sense’ has a feel of unrestrained tension to the tune. The arrangement fits the lyrics, reflecting the unease in trying to make sense of philosophical debates the speaker is encountering. The speaker just wants to talk to someone about the social issues of the day with some logic, and not feel dominated by emotional blackmail.
With the songs ‘Nope’ and ‘Shrug and Destroy’, the band finds itself exploring different genres and styles in a more direct manner than ever before. On the album Sky Blue Sky, ‘Walken’ picked up on the boogie woogie style of the blues that made Fats Domino famous in the 1950s and artists such as T. Rex and Commander Cody famous in the 1970s. In fact, ‘Walken’ has much in common with Fats Domino’s ‘I’m Walking’; I’d like to think it’s a loving tribute to a master of Rock and Roll. Nope has the style of blues that most people think of when they think of blues, like the recordings that Eric Clapton did with Derek & The Dominos. ‘Shrug and Destroy’ feels like the band’s first foray into jazz, particularly avant-garde jazz.
A couple of songs in particular felt they could have easily fit on the TWEEDY album Sukirae. I remember hearing an interview that Jeff Tweedy gave last year in which he said something to the effect of that he doesn’t distinguish songs written for Wilco and songs written for other projects. ‘Someone To Lose’ was the last song released before the album was released. This is another song that I really enjoy; it reminds me of ‘Low Key’. Happiness is a song that actually tries to make sense of overwhelming sadness. It feels similar to the song ‘High As Hello’ in its tempo and tone, perhaps also addressing a struggle to deal with grief.
Locator was the first song released from the new album. At first, I was under the impression that this may have been an outtake from Star Wars. I didn’t realize at the time that the songs on each album evolved from the same sessions. When looking back at the lyrics of the songs on Star Wars, there wasn’t much difference in the themes: sadness, isolation, regret. However, the lyrics were shrouded in symbolism and sonic noise.
The approach to delivery of the lyrics on Schmilco is very direct. There’s no mistaking how the speaker of each poem/song feels. In addition, with a simpler, more intimate approach to the arrangement of the songs in a musical sense, it leaves the speaker of each song more vulnerable. That can make for an even more powerful connection for the reader. Can the reader relate to everything in the songs? Perhaps, but it’s not necessary; for those who are honest enough with themselves, the reader/listener can certainly relate to the vulnerability felt by the speaker. It is always important to consider this connection on a rational level; the ability to emphasize with the speaker allows the reader/listener to appreciate the music on a deeper level than just hearing the melodies. In the case of Schmilco, this has happened for me.