There are times when you can listen to Wilco's latest, Summer Teeth, and hear only Jeff Tweedy's peculiar songwriting genius, the way he can turn a thousand familiar melodies into one perfectly imperfect song that manages to sound like everything and nothing that came before it. It's a mess of Beatles and Beach Boys references, the unavoidable result of 30 years of pop-music history working its way through a former record-store clerk who's heard it all. He's smart enough not to treat his influences with too much reverence, mixing them together and combining them until the effect has little in common with the cause. They are just pieces in a jigsaw puzzle only Tweedy knows how to figure out, because he is the only one who knows what it's supposed to look like. But even as blatant as Tweedy's rips are, it's not so easy to play spot-the-influence with Summer Teeth. The problem is that there are just too many of them; everything from girl-group pop ("Candyfloss") to Leonard Cohen castoffs ("How to Fight Loneliness") shows up on the disc. Yet the album never lingers too long on any one thing, just sprinkling subtle acknowledgements throughout, a trail of bread crumbs leading Tweedy back to the beginning.
Of course, there are times when you can listen to Summer Teeth and not hear the music at all. Nothing seems to exist except for Tweedy's words, almost all of them about falling -- stumbling helplessly, really -- in and out of love. Tweedy has claimed that people have read too much into his words, that they are nothing more than stories told in the first person. But lyrics like "When I forget how to talk I sing" (from "She's a Jar") seem to tell a different story. For every pledge he makes that "a kiss is all we need," as Tweedy swears on the reassuring "Nothing'severgonnastandinmyway(again)," there is an equally convincing vow that "our prayers will never be answered" ("Can't Stand It"). He can't decide which one he believes, flipping back and forth on almost every track. And he blames everyone for his problems, either wondering why his heart is full of holes ("I'm Always in Love") or accusing his significant other of changing ("What you once were isn't what you want to be anymore," he sing-screams on "A Shot in the Arm"). Summer Teeth is a midlife-crisis album for a man too young for one, a diary of threatened, almost promised, infidelity.
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Depending on when you listen to it, Summer Teeth is either a pop masterpiece or the most depressing album imaginable. In truth, it's probably both. And it's proof that Tweedy only gets better with age, managing to top 1996's Being There, which sounded at the time like an album he would never be able to approach again, let alone improve upon. While his former Uncle Tupelo bandmate Jay Farrar continues to remake the same Son Volt album over and over again, Tweedy moves a little further away from anything he's ever done each time out. By now, old labels don't apply to Tweedy and the band and almost seem too ridiculous to mention. If Wilco's 1995 debut, A.M., was a tentative first step away, Being There was a sprint into the future by way of the past. Summer Teeth finds Tweedy so far down the road, it's doubtful he remembers what he was running from in the first place. At this point, even the No Depression set doesn't have a big enough shoehorn to squeeze Summer Teeth into the alt-country category, or anything else. There's isn't anything you can call Wilco anymore, except for this: brilliant.