Someone to Sing You a Song
In Fargo Rock City, writer Chuck Klosterman frames his list of “essential” albums by posing a hypothetical question: how much money would someone have to pay you never to listen to your favorite album again? It’s a silly exercise. Even our favorite music, Klosterman admits, is hardly more essential to physical survival than food or air. Music obsessives, however, recognize an irresistible thrust to this sort of parlor game. Art, after all, is a vital element of our human survival, as it nourishes, delights, and gives meaning to how we understand ourselves and the world in which we live.
Having pondered Klosterman’s question for many years, I suspect that I could be bought off, and sometimes cheaply, for some of the albums that have migrated from old CD sleeves to a scratched click-wheel iPod and now to this computer hard drive. Others would fetch a dear price. Yet there remains one indispensable album, Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, for which I’m not sure I can name my price.
Wilco has long been my favorite band, but that unassuming disc, taken as a whole, hardly stands among their best work. The ambitious Yankee Hotel Foxtrot won more acclaim, and Summerteeth, a nearly perfect album, brims with gorgeous orchestral pop; my least favorite piece of their catalog, A Ghost Is Born, somehow won a pair of Grammy awards, for whatever that’s worth.
Sky Blue Sky sold well upon its release in 2007, reaching number four on the Billboard 200, but elicited mixed reviews. Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum famously panned it as “dad rock,” a passive successor to the sonic adventurousness of the previous decade.
“Dad rock” struck me as a peculiarly sharp dig. Mitchum wrote that Wilco had made “the stylistic equivalent of a wardrobe change into sweatpants and a tank top.” In one sense, the phrase provided a lazy shorthand for a band that had long defied labels. In another sense, the phrase bespoke a larger difficulty in describing rock musicians of a certain age. Rock ‘n’ roll was conceived as music of, by, and for young people. How, if at all, could the idioms of rebellion and sexuality transition into middle age? No one wants to hear power-chord anthems about riding lawnmowers, refinanced mortgages, or—God forbid—their parents actually having sex. How does rock ‘n’ roll grow up? What would that actually sound like?
It can, in fact, and it sounds a lot like Sky Blue Sky.
The music on Sky Blue Sky was only part of why I came to adore the album. The larger explanation for its resonance was the context in which I discovered it. Had this CD come at another time, its meanings surely would have changed. My teenaged self, for example, likely would have dismissed the album as too mellow. Perhaps even lame. Yet in the spring of 2007, I stood at a point in my life, as a thirty-something listener with real grown-up problems, when such straightforward, comfort music could not have been timed better.
Appearing first as a stream on Wilco’s website, Sky Blue Sky reached me during a period whipsawed by good fortune and despair. A few years out of grad school, I was living with my wife and young son near a small town in western Missouri. Our son had been born just as I finished my Ph.D. in history, and my wife’s job as a family physician made it possible for me to stay home and care for the baby full time. In some respects, our lives by 2007 were better than ever. The boy was healthy and happy, my wife’s busy practice flourished, and our rural home had become a funny farm teeming with cows, chickens, and ducks. That summer also saw the publication of my book, a narrative history of the nineteenth-century Missouri-Kansas border called The Border between Them.
Nagging insecurities nonetheless shadowed me. With a book in hand, I began to wonder if I had made the right choice not pursuing a tenure-track teaching position. As proud of that book as I was, its completion—mostly during my son’s naps and for hours after his bedtime—left me more exhausted than exhilarated. What’s more, time spent worrying about that manuscript and ever distant job prospects made me feel like a distracted stay-at-home parent. I felt unmoored.
Semi-professional gloom, however, was nothing next to the struggles that my wife and I faced trying to have another child. Our son had come into the world without complication; buoyed by innocent confidence, we expected nothing else with our next pregnancy. Alas, the first miscarriage was a disappointment. The second miscarriage broke our hearts. Then came a crushing third. A fourth left us with no language for this kind of quiet despair. We learned that a surgical mishap had caused a perforation in my wife’s uterus, making it impossible for her to carry another pregnancy safely to term.
Over the years, my wife and I eventually heard countless stories of other couples who lost pregnancies or struggled to conceive. Infertility, we came to understand, is an acutely lonely kind of misery that affects both no one and everyone. Few couples broadcast their difficulties, and instead hear their silence punctured with impertinent comments (“When are you two going to start trying?” “You’re not getting any younger!”) from often well meaning people. We held out hope that somehow our luck would turn and that some alternative, perhaps adoption or surrogacy, would bring our son a baby sister or brother.
This was the emotional loam in which my affection for Sky Blue Sky took root. “Dad rock,” indeed.
The deluxe edition of Sky Blue Sky came with a bonus DVD, Shake It Off, which included an interview with Wilco singer/songwriter/co-founder Jeff Tweedy. He illuminated the distance between that album and its recent predecessors. “The world is so mysterious and so terrifying right now, it just felt weird to write puzzles and disjointed, non-sequitur kinda lyrics,” said Tweedy. “I think now is a good time to sit down and sing people some . . . songs. That’s what I want, just someone to sing me a song, you know?”
Breaking sharply from recent opening lines that were equally foreboding (YHF begins “I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue”) or raw (AGIB: “When I sat down on the bed next to you/You started to cry”), SBS does indeed begin simply and directly: “Maybe the sun will shine today/The clouds will blow away/Maybe I won’t feel so afraid/I will try to understand, either way.”
The ten songs that follow “Either Way” sustain this theme of guarded hopefulness. Some of the tracks, especially languid middle tunes such as “Leave Me (Like You Found Me),” are just fine, evoking the polished, mellow folk-rock from the 1970s. There are glimpses that recall darker notes from Wilco’s earlier work, but what once sounded like untreated depression now yields to ironic self-deprecation. Both “Side with the Seeds” and “Shake It Off” (a far cry from the Taylor Swift earworm of the same name) begin slowly but build steadily toward bolder, more resolute crescendos.
The emotional maturity of Sky Blue Sky suggested a band whose six members were comfortable in their grown-up skin. Gone are the boozy sing-a-longs (“You’re gonna make me spill my beer/If you don’t learn how to steer”) and straight-ahead rock anthems that I loved in my early twenties. In their place are songs that perhaps can come only from a writer, Tweedy, whose marriage (to Sue Miller) has endured for nearly as long as his band. Both the ballad “Please Be Patient With Me” and the jaunty strut of “Walken,” the one tune that truly rocks, drip with unadorned affection. In addition, the B-side track “The Thanks I Get” brilliantly captures the challenges of sustaining a long-term and long-distance relationship before its call-and-response chorus refrain: “We can make it better?/We can make it better.”
The heart of Sky Blue Sky—and the reasons why it remains my most indispensable album—are its second and third songs, “You Are My Face” and “Impossible Germany.”
“Impossible Germany” is probably the album’s most famous track, thanks in no small part to its use as an audio bumper between segments on National Public Radio. Tweedy sings for only a small part of “Impossible Germany,” but his spare lyrics pack an outsized punch. I can’t tell you how many times my CD played: “There’s nothing more important than to know someone’s listening/Now I know you’ll be listening” on repeat during the summer of 2007. Even greater power lies in the masterful twin-guitar solo that builds for most of the song’s six minutes. Together, the words and music form the aural antidepressant that I still keep cued for the most rotten of days.
“You Are My Face” is simply my favorite song ever. More than anything I heard during that discouraging summer, it captured the ineffable feeling of the moment, yet reminded me that this, too, would pass. The song has three discrete parts, grounded in the narrator’s past, present, and future. Gauzy lyrical reflections begin the song and proceed gently over a piano melody and the quiet strum of an acoustic guitar. Crunching electric guitars, however, puncture the nostalgia and thrust the narrator into a messy present wherein Tweedy can only exclaim, “I have no idea how this happens/All of my maps have been overthrown” and “When everybody’s feeling all alone/I can’t tell you who I am.” In the final third the song returns to the same quiet guitar and piano, as the protagonist imagines an idealized future of “trying to be thankful” and “houses hemmed into homes.”
Sky Blue Sky and particularly “You Are My Face” were the invaluable comfort music that helped me navigate the remainder of 2007. By year’s end, my family’s prospects had brightened beyond our wildest hopes. My wife’s sister volunteered to serve as a gestational carrier, should my wife and I manage to conceive via in vitro fertilization. We poured our savings into an IVF cycle and, unbelievably, we struck the fertility jackpot. Two viable embryos were implanted, and many months later we thrilled at the births of our new daughter and son.
Seven years later, our incredible good fortune continued. We met an incredible woman from Kansas City who agreed to be our surrogate, and of our two remaining embryos, which had been placed in cryo-storage, one survived transfer. Nine months later, our youngest son was born. Trying to be thankful, we’ve learned, was quite easy.
One of the joys of following Wilco for twenty-plus years has been watching their artistic evolution as my own life has changed. Sky Blue Sky was the first of four studio albums from the band’s current incarnation. They remain, in my own biased view, the most compelling band still making music, a group whose collective brilliance exceeds the sum of their considerable individual talents. The past decade has witnessed a return to the label-defying experimentation of Wilco’s earlier albums, although the familiar themes of love, alienation, resilience, loneliness, and hope endure.
Perhaps the age of “dad rock” has passed. Should it return, however, I know one eager listener who will be ready. Sometimes you just want someone to sing you a song, you know?
Jeremy Neely teaches history at Missouri State University in Springfield. He lives with his wife and four children on a farm which also now includes a dog, a pig, four rabbits, six goats, and a host of barn cats. His writings about the nineteenth-century American West have also appeared in Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri (University Press of Kansas), Missouri Historical Review, The New York Times’ Disunion series, and The Kansas City Star.