REVIEW: Wilco’s ‘Summerteeth’ reissue is a biting, reflective diary of musical growth

Promotional artwork for Wilco’s ‘Summerteeth Deluxe Edition’ courtesy of Warner Brothers Records

Since their inception in 1994, the Chicago-native band Wilco has become known for their incredibly diverse range of sounds and their role in pioneering modern alternative music. Almost 22 years after the original release of their third studio album Summerteeth, the deluxe edition has arrived on November 6th to celebrate one of Wilco’s most influential yet overlooked albums.

Wilco has been exploring different sounds for their whole career, but Summerteeth is the beginning of them redefining the alternative genre. Their first studio album A.M. is reminiscent of the alternative country style found in frontrunner Jeff Tweedy’s past band Uncle Tupelo, while their follow-up album Being There begins to explore the more serious themes found in many of their albums. Summerteeth, however, is when Wilco really begins to sound like, well, Wilco. 

Jeff Tweedy’s extremely personal yet horrifyingly dark storytelling combined with the band’s new venture into more psychedelic instrumentation makes Summerteeth the first major stepping stone towards Wilco establishing their unique sound. The previously unreleased outtakes and demos on the deluxe edition show the emotions behind the tracks and the band’s ability to span multiple genres of music. To top it all off, the full live show recording at the end gives listeners another medium of feeling the passion behind the performance of Wilco’s music to leave off on.

Throughout the original tracklist, Wilco shows off their ability to combine their usual fantastic storytelling with a completely new endeavor sonically. The album’s second track, “She’s a Jar,” is a mellowed out and soft confession of a song. A beautiful joining of Jay Bennett’s signature mellotron and the soft drums and guitar make listening feel like drifting down a river, with a calming sensation present in the instrumentation. Tweedy’s storytelling, however, is again the perfect contrast. There are mentions of domestic abuse across the record in tracks such as this one and “Via Chicago,” and they are reflective of Tweedy’s creative outlet during a dark time in his life. Each track further develops these feelings through instrumentation as well as writing, and a dark, but thought-provoking mood forms for the listener very effectively. As he recites, “She’s a jar, with a heavy lid, my pop quiz kid, a sleepy kisser, / a pretty war, with feelings hid, you know she begs me not to hit her,” Tweedy confesses with sheer regret and pain present in his voice. It’s songs like these that make Summerteeth an absolute gem. The haunting lyricism that weaves throughout makes listening feel like you are the character in the songs, like you are in a conflict with family, love, and inner anger along with Tweedy, and that is what sets it apart. 

As the album continues, a distinct layering of different sounds begins to splice into the tracks. Specifically, the track “I’m Always in Love” is an anthem of uncontrollable feelings. Some lyrics like, “When I fold the cold in my jet-lag palm, / When I soak so long I forget my mother” seem nonsensical at first listen. But when paying attention to exactly how Tweedy executes the lines vocally, he somehow transforms them in an entirely emotionally driven way. The instrumentation on this track, however, is the focal point, with sharp mellotron keys piercing through the thumping drum beats. The vocals even begin to sound somewhat drowned out, but as the narrative aspects of the album unfold, this detail makes sense with the feeling of drowning from the conflicts of life that are being conveyed across the record. This track sounds like listening to the birth of Wilco’s sound condensed into four minutes, and comparing it to their later work like their album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it is clear that their dive into a more experimental, emotional direction really kicked into overdrive on Summerteeth.

The noisy production continues throughout, including the track “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again),” in which the connection between Jeff Tweedy and the album is seen even more clearly. With the track’s chorus being the title itself, he is addressing even more closely that he is actively trying to fight his demons, and that he is making an effort to beat them. This song is Tweedy fighting the conflict between him and his wife and the acknowledgement of the strain between them, with him changing up the chorus for the last line to be, “Nothing’s ever gonna stand in our way again.” This album is the beginning of him putting his deepest, darkest feelings into Wilco’s albums, and the outcome is a fantastically emotional work. It is so well crafted in terms of its lyrics and instrumentation that even without actually being present in the experiences within the songs, the tracks manage to put a sinking feeling in your stomach, almost like you’ve been transported within the record’s setting yourself.

A key track that showcases the rawness of this record is “Via Chicago,” a very stripped down track in comparison to others on the record, composed of soft guitar strums and some of the most melancholy lyrical delivery seen from Tweedy across the record. The track opens with one of the darkest lines in all of Wilco’s discography, “I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me. / Dying on the banks of Embarcadero skies, I sat and watched you bleed.” No lyrics on this record, or across Wilco’s records for that matter, are quite as horrific as this one, and it serves to further cement the emotional weight that Summerteeth possesses.

As the record comes to an end, themes of conflicts within oneself as well as with other people close to oneself continue. But with that, the sort of longing for self-improvement that is present in small doses throughout the record, more prominently in “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again),” is back and is more explicitly stated. Tweedy sings, “She’s in the way, / I’m in the way,” again showing the problems that are weaved throughout the record of having an inner turmoil while still being in conflict with the people close to you. But as the final track comes to a close, he admits, “I know I should be more careful, / I know I should watch where I’ve been,” and this is where Summerteeth’s merit shines through. It ends as it begins, with conflict being front and center. But as it comes to a close, the conflict isn’t something that is unbeatable. Through songwriting and the beautiful composing of upbeat piano and guitars, the desire to defeat the ever present conflicts within oneself is emphasized. 

With the additions that the deluxe edition adds, the identity of Wilco is very clear and their ability to bring their music in whatever direction they choose is the focal point. Many of the demos, outtakes, and alternate versions of the original tracks evoke a similar feeling when listening to them, and most of the lyrics are pretty much the same as the originals. But the real merit of these newly released versions is what it shows about Wilco as a band and how they go about developing their projects. 

The remastered demo version of “I’m Always in Love” is a perfect example of how Wilco can go from one route for a song to a very different one in order to portray what they are going for more specifically. The studio version of the track from the original release is a very sharply composed track with very distinct noises layered throughout to convey the turmoil present throughout. In an almost complete contrast, the demo release is an entirely acoustic version with much more raw vocals. Yet somehow, it still manages to fit the tone of the original, just in a different way. The original has much more conflict between its instrumentation and its vocals, but the demo has a much more hopeless feeling within it. This doesn’t cause it to miss the original intent of the track, it just highlights certain aspects more specifically. The demos and outtakes are not meant to be new songs entirely. Instead, they serve to show that Wilco can go from one rendition of a song to another, never losing the meaning. 

The deluxe edition concludes with a live show from the Boulder Theatre in Boulder, Colorado, in 1999. Listening to the live performances of songs from Summerteeth and their predecessors, you can hear in Tweedy’s voice that when he sings, he is speaking a truth that he understands very well. The themes present in the original album are put under the magnifying glass through Tweedy’s vocal inflections as Wilco as a whole takes creative liberties during their performance. It shows that they understand what their works mean to them and so many others, yet they can still keep the meaning while making them sound fresh in engaging new ways. The opening track of the show “Via Chicago” is a perfect example, with much of the vocal inflections in the original being removed from the live performance. But as the song comes to a close, Tweedy bellows out some of the final lines, “And a cracked door moon, / That says I haven’t gone too far” and the sheer passion in his voice causes goosebumps. Wilco somehow manages to make it feel like you’re sitting in the Boulder Theatre with them, and the atmosphere it adds to the listening experience is irreplaceable.

One critique of the live portion of this deluxe edition is that about half of the songs are from previous albums and for some, that may throw off the tone of the music somewhat since the album is such a unique departure from their earlier work. However, with this being a live performance recording, it only makes sense that there would be songs from their other albums with it being a full show. In addition to that, the presence of some of their earlier songs adds a layer to the progression that Wilco has gone through over the years. The way that they perform these tracks feels as though they are putting the raw emotion present on Summerteeth into the performance as a whole and it really adds a whole new meaning to what their discography means as a whole.
This is the record in which Tweedy faces his inner demons and comes out the other side with Wilco better than ever. Even with the drug addiction, the inner turmoil, the conflict with his family, the stress of songwriting, he has a work that both he and Wilco can be proud of, which is exactly what Summerteeth as an album represents. It proves that no matter the obstacles that are in the way, they can be beaten. With the additions that the deluxe edition adds, this is even more strongly seen than with just the original album. Through all the different versions of the songs, through the changes in the band, through all the conflicts, Wilco still made it, and their live show just goes to show that. Wilco may have more recognition for some of their later work, but it will always be the stepping stone for Wilco to find who they are as a band, and it will always be a symbol of progression in Jeff Tweedy’s life and the band’s sound. After listening to Summerteeth, it’s pretty clear that nothing’s ever gonna stand in Wilco’s way again.

Liam Fitzpatrick is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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