Loose Fur’s (personnel: Jeff Tweedy and Glen Kotche of Wilco, and Jim O’Rourke, Wilco producer, solo artist, formerly of Sonic Youth) second album, Born Again in the U.S.A., surprised me. I had expected, and kind of hoped for, a record similar to the Wilco side project’s self-titled inaugural effort. That record was a collection of six subdued, unusual, captivating songs that unfolded slowly and gradually. The syncopated Rock n’ Roll riff that shouts from Tweedy’s guitar to open Born Again‘s first track, “Hey Chicken,” promises a different experience. The album delivers on that promise with a lot of raucous energy, with four incontrovertible pop gems, two penned by Tweedy (“The Ruling Class” and “Wanted) and two by O’Rourke (“Stupid as the Sun” and “Thou Shalt Wilt”), and with an overall shift towards a somewhat more traditional rock/pop sound.
Now that I think about it, I should’ve expected the unexpected from these guys. In his work with Wilco Jeff Tweedy has never been constrained by expectations from past efforts. Each album departs significantly from the sound and feel of previous successes. This is part of what endears the band to critics and makes Wilco such a fun band to follow. That spirit of unrestrained creative joy pervades Born Again, infects the listener, and is its strongest selling point.
It’s weak point would be its lack of coherence. Normally I appreciate an album that visits a good variety of musical places, but after the two peppy Tweedy compositions that open the album, O’Rourke’s first contribution, the curmudgeonly ballad, “Answers to Your Questions,” is a rather unwelcome downer, even if it is lovely. The same is true of the other few times when this album revisits to some extent the subdued sound of Loose Fur–for the most part these moments stand on their own as quality compositions, but they don’t mesh well with the rest of the material and they don’t captivate like the Loose Fur material does.
As the band name and the title of the album suggest, Tweedy and O’Rourke’s lyrics deal extensively with religion. Tweedy has been singing songs about religion since his Uncle Tupelo days. His attitude has ranged from fully (ironically?) adopting religious language (“Satan, your kingdom must come down”) to soft sacrilege (“Music is my Savior”) to defiant angst (“No love’s as random/ as God’s love/ I can’t stand it!/ I can’t stand it!”; “Theologians/ they don’t know nothin’/ ’bout my soul”). The lyrics on Born Again cover some of the same ground. In the sacrilege department there’s Tweedy’s catchy as all get-out tune, “The Ruling Class,” which imagines Christ returning as a smack-shooting, crack-smoking yuppy: “He’s got deductions right on down the line/ dependent claims on all of mankind.” In the defiant angst category is O’Rourke’s “Thou Shalt Wilt,” a satirical run-through of the Ten Commandments: “We must set a clear mandate/ The best damn way to conjugate.” In one sense, I think the religion-themed material on this album is a way for these guys to express the angst of the American irreligious. But I think there’s more to it than that; they are proselytizing to win souls for Rock n’ Roll.
This past autumn at a Jeff Tweedy solo concert which I attended on the campus of a little Christian college in Pennsylvania, Tweedy, inspired by the ambience, I guess, got a bit preachy about Rock n’ Roll and religion (he said he felt like he needed a pulpit onstage that he could pound). The gist of his little speech was that, while he respected people’s beliefs (of course), he found in Rock n’ Roll what he would have liked to have found in church: an opportunity to unify with other people and feel a part of humanity rather than apart from humanity. The autumn before that at a Wilco concert I attended, Tweedy waxed a bit preachy to the listless Baltimore crowd (everyone in Baltimore is miserable) about the joy of Rock n’ Roll. With this in mind, it seems that Tweedy is earnest when he sings on “Apostolic,” “The Apostolic life/ That’s the life for me/ Fightin’ laxity/ and gettin’ preachy!” Which helps to explain Tweedy’s tireless touring, both with Wilco and solo, and his current prolificacy: he’s a man on a mission. Maybe the Christ of “The Ruling Class” is a manifestation of Tweedy’s messiah complex; and perhaps the title of the instrumental track, “An Ecumenical Matter,” reveals the extent of these apostles’ ambition.
I’m a believer. There’s no other group of artists whose output I more eagerly anticipate. While Born Again is not perfect, it is a worthy addition to the increasingly impressive Tweedy/Wilco canon.