Review of Jeff Tweedy’s WARM

The Wall Street Journal
Nov. 28, 2018

In his new memoir, “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back),” Jeff Tweedy, best known for his work as the leader and frontman of Wilco, takes stock of his songwriting progress around the turn of the millennium. “For years I’d been gauging the quality of my songs based on how easy it was to picture someone else singing them,” he writes. “Now it meant more to write songs that only made sense if I sang them.” On “WARM,” out Friday, his first proper solo album, Mr. Tweedy seems to have found a sweet spot in between those two poles. These are intimate songs clearly traceable to the details of the life of the man who wrote them, but their basic themes are universal, and it’s easy to imagine another artist covering them.

As strong as the essentials of these songs are—sturdy melodies and memorable turns of phrase abound—with Jeff Tweedy, it always starts with his voice. His slightly cracked and windburned tenor is empathy rendered as sound, a voice whose weary, grainy tone holds both pain and comfort. And it’s a voice that has aged remarkably well in the three decades since Mr. Tweedy formed the influential alt-country act Uncle Tupelo—while it has weathered, its early purity of tone has been replaced with something lived-in that radiates an earned wisdom.

In the early aughts, Wilco was letting its experimental side run wild. On 2001’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and 2004’s “A Ghost Is Born,” the band’s songs were twisted and hammered into weird and spooky shapes, the melodies infected with otherworldly noise and dissonance. By the end of the decade, Mr. Tweedy began to lean toward simplicity, leading to a string of releases that were accomplished, consistent, expressive, and—sometimes, depending on the album—a little dull.

Some heard in Mr. Tweedy’s mature work songs overloaded with the comfort of middle-aged domesticity. But on “WARM,” working without his band and under his own name, he turns those un-rock ’n’ roll qualities into a great strength. The new album is the best batch of songs by Mr. Tweedy since 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky,” but it’s not because he’s taking a radical new approach to songwriting. It’s instead a matter of focus, of looking more deeply to find meaning in the everyday. If his work from 15 years ago touched on the fear and anxiety of living in a tech-drenched, postmillennial world that seemed to be spinning out of control, the songs on “WARM” realize that the most terrifying thing of all is losing someone you love. It’s an album about reflection and dread and hope, all grounded in the quotidian details of one man’s examined life.

The arrangements on “WARM” match the subject matter, in that they are uncluttered and efficient and not tied to any particular trend or era. The guitars are mostly acoustic; the drums are dry, crisp, well-placed and forceful; and there’s always plenty of space around Mr. Tweedy’s voice, the better to catch the nuance of his phrasing. Bits of pedal steel seep through the cracks here and there to suggest “rootsy” as an idiom, but no one would mistake these highly specific tales for traditional country or folk.

The emotional range is striking. On “How Hard It Is for a Desert to Die,” Mr. Tweedy sounds bombed-out and exhausted. The downcast melody brings to mind the early, fragile work of his contemporary Elliott Smith. “I Know What It’s Like” points out that a life without pain is also one without love, and Mr. Tweedy seems haunted by the loneliness he can’t quite shake: “When the lights are dim / In my window I have a twin / I’m always looking out / And he’s always looking in.” On “Having Been Is No Way to Be,” he meditates on the addiction that almost killed him, and tries to square the youthful quest for sensation with the slower burn of real human connection: “When I watch you sleep / I wonder how much freedom we need.” For Mr. Tweedy, the struggle and rewards of family are the most chaotic and intense adventure of them all, from hearing his own laugh in the laugh of his son to sweating awkwardly in a new suit while he stands by his father’s grave.

“We all think about dying,” Mr. Tweedy sings in “Don’t Forget,” the song that finds him at that gravesite. But for all its thoughts on death, “WARM” isn’t exactly dark. There is some humor—in “Let’s Go Rain,” for example, a country-gospel number that imagines the next great flood, Mr. Tweedy outlines the religious belief to be found in encountering the work of indie-rock singer/songwriter Scott McCaughey. But the record’s lightness really comes from its honest simplicity, the way it collapses distance and suggests that the people around us are all we have, so we’d better appreciate them while they—and we—are still around.