Being stranded courtesy of the Covid-19 pandemic has a way of stripping life down to its essentials. Your social circle shrinks; your creative, cultural, and hedonistic outlets are sharply curtailed. What’s left is time to mull that which is missing—and to appreciate what remains.
Wouldn’t that be a great subject for an album? Jeff Tweedy thought so. Best known as the frontman and creative force behind the indie band Wilco, Tweedy spent the better part of 2020 writing a set of thoughtful, elemental songs. He then culled them into an album that mimics today’s stripped-down yet somehow self-sufficient feel. The result, Love is the King, is both the perfect descriptor of inner life—the life of the heart and mind—during this pandemic, and a grace-infused antidote to our trials.
The songs that make up this remarkable collection are models of craft and wit. Though they encompass the same signature styles, chords, and progressions Tweedy’s been mining for years, each takes at least one unexpected turn that makes it unique. Further, every note, whether melodic, foundational, or a flourish, makes a critical contribution to the whole—or it wouldn’t be there. This lack of the expendable and gratuitous is both refreshing and, in these times, resonant.
The lyrics, too, are beautifully forged. Their subject is what Tweedy sees as the central lesson of the pandemic: what you miss the most is love and connection; yet, paradoxically, those very elements are what get you through. Every track, no matter how far-flung its outward subject, comes back to this theme. Again, Tweedy offers reassuring constancy, but also keeps things fresh by conveying his theme through an ever-changing stream of metaphors.
I fear I’ve depicted an album that’s somber and humorless. Let me assure you that Love is the King is neither of these things. Some songs are indeed thoughtful, but they’re also relatable and infused with a stark honesty that’ll grab you by the throat. “Even I Cajn See” begins, “If I may have your attention please/To tell you about my wife/And what she means to me.” Then, in an ode teeming with admiration, respect, and a touch of envy, he proceeds to do just that. On the other hand, tracks like “Natural Disaster” are upbeat and playful: “I’ve never been blown by the winds of a hurricane/Never been in a flood/I’ve never been buried up to my neck in mud/But I’ve fallen in love/And that’s enough/Of a natural/Disaster for me.”
Most of these songs are acoustic, mid-tempo folk-rockers, though Tweedy spices things up with country inflections and tasty guitar solos. Normally, Wilco members would provide these embellishments, but that obviously wasn’t possible here. So Tweedy did what so many pandemic-isolated artists have done: he played most of the instruments himself. Fortunately, he’s plenty proficient not only on his mainstay acoustic guitar, but also on bass, pedal steel, and electric lead. Indeed, among the album’s highlights are the cocky solo in “Natural Disaster,” and the poignant, acoustic duet in “Even I Can See.”
The only elements Tweedy himself couldn’t supply were drums and harmonies. Unable to turn to his band, he enlisted some musically-adept family members. Conveniently, among his isolation “pod” are Tweedy’s sons Spencer and Sammy, who contribute drums and harmonies, respectively. The outcome is as organic as you’d expect a family-based band to be.
Appropriately, given the subject matter and circumstances, the production is unprepossessing in the extreme. There is nothing artificial on the album. The benefit is not only a supremely relaxed listening experience, but sonics the likes of which we’ve never heard from a pandemic-era release. Most of those were recorded amateurishly, at home, and at a paltry 44.1k sampling rate.
In contrast, Tweedy and company could walk over to The Loft, the private, professional recording studio that he and Wilco built twenty years ago. In addition to keeping the signal path clean, Tweedy chose a native resolution of 24/96. If you listen to it that way, you’ll hear stunningly pure sound. Add that to one of Tweedy’s best batches of songs, and you have the perfect soundtrack for these reflective times. Highly Recommended.
Coming Soon: Fans of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass are about to finally get a version that gives the masterful album its sonic due. For its 50th anniversary, the recording is being reworked from scratch under the guidance of George’s son Dhani. How good will it be? To find out, go to Qobuz and compare the teaser title track, “All Things Must Pass (2020 mix),” to any other version and you’ll be as giddy as I am about what’s coming.
Tags: JEFF TWEEDY
By Alan Taffel
I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.More articles from this editor
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