Wilco's Jeff Tweedy finds the idea of a tortured artist to be a cliché. He doesn't want that tag, even though his most recent work, an album recorded with his 19-year-old son under the band name Tweedy, was born partially out of a family trauma. Yet that didn't so much inform the work as put his job into focus.
"My job must have some value," Tweedy, 47, said recently on the phone from his home in Chicago. "You periodically question your path in life as a musician or as an artist. I don't think it's a cop-out or a deep consolation to delude yourself into thinking that it does have some sort of beautiful, spiritual value in the world. Being able to open up in ways that other people find more difficult is part of the job."
The 20 songs that form the basis of "Sukierae" are a loose, revealing peek into a household dealing with cancer. Tweedy's wife, Susan Miller, has been open in discussing her lymphoma diagnosis with friends and on social media, and "Sukierae" is an album that finds hope in fright.
It captures a full range of emotions, from hushed guitar-and-drum waltzes to more lighthearted, upbeat affairs. It's the sound of a father and son connecting in the studio. More important, "Sukierae," Miller's nickname, is the rare album that lets the world have a peek at how one family copes.
"I don't know if it was so much healing as consolation," says Tweedy, who will perform with Wilco April 29 at SunFest in West Palm Beach. "That probably helps in healing, but it's not the same thing. My wife is still healing, and our family will still be healing for a long time from the trauma of such a scary year. Prognosis has been really good, but there was a four-month period where there were a lot of scarier things on the table. I think anybody who has had a brush with cancer can understand that it doesn't just go, 'Hey, it's done.' There's a lingering anxiety."
FINDING THE CENTER
The tone of the album is improvisational, as the songs feel recorded on the spot with little retouching. Instruments are captured intimately — check the brush of rhythms and sharp Western guitars of "World Away" or the swinging side-to-side feel of "Summer Moon" — and the lyrics are poignant, the sort of nakedness that Tweedy compares to "looking directly into the camera." Tweedy's work in Wilco may share similar sentiments, but Wilco dresses its pop melodies in surrealism.
The intent wasn't to strip back. Tweedy says recording the album gave the family "a sense of normalcy," and it has the informal familiarity of a family sitting around a fireplace.
"Even the saddest songs, the songs with most potentially harrowing lyrical turns, I had a great time making," Tweedy says. "It was a very joyous process to get to make stuff. I think the hope Spencer and I had in finishing this record was that people could hear some transcendence."
The 20 songs of "Sukierae" get more personal as the album unfolds. Accentuated often with little more than a piano or light-stepping background vocals, Tweedy's scratched yet friendly voice takes the spotlight. It's a work marked by little details: the remembrance of watching the television through his mother's cigarette smoke on "I'll Never Know"; the lilting, reassuring harmonies that underline "Nobody Dies Anymore."
Spencer's drumming is conversational, swaying with his father's sentiments rather than anchoring them. The elder Tweedy is unflinching in his observations. "I want to watch you growing old and dumb," he sing-whispers on "Where My Love." Beneath the lyrics, stark piano notes cut to the bone.
His goal, Tweedy clarifies, was to put himself in a state of unease rather than telegraph a specific emotion for the listener. "I don't think that any artist makes anyone feel anything," he says. "I think they make people recognize the feelings that they have, that they've forgotten how to get in touch with. I think that's valuable. I aspire to do that. I aspire to make myself feel a little uncomfortable. I want to say something so direct that it feels like the hair on the back of my neck stands up a little bit. I want to feel vulnerable. I think that's my job, actually."
The result is an album that takes a look at a very singular aspect of adulthood. Tweedy's work, in and out of Wilco, has always been reflective of his particular place in life. "I think most rock 'n' roll tries to stay connected to the coded language of youth, but I don't care," he says. "I think it looks sort of silly."
BACK TO THE DAY JOB
After completing a tour with his son last month, Tweedy has returned to his day job in Wilco. In June, the band will once again stage Solid Sound, a multiday festival in North Adams, Mass. And, of course, the band will headline co-headline the first night of the five-day SunFest opposite Lenny Kravitz.
Tweedy says Wilco has about 37 songs in various stages of completion for a new album, one that will be informed by the more casually recorded feel of "Sukierae."
"It's a weird prospect, putting six people in a room and having them all hammer out a common direction," he says. "It's very slow. Try and get six of your friends to do anything. Everyone is at a different place in their life and a different headspace, musically. It's very time-consuming to reach a consensus, and the danger is that you keep circling back to the same cross section of the Venn diagram that you all have in common."
Tweedy uses "Sukierae" as an example of what he'd like for Wilco's future.
"It's already started to filter its way into Wilco," he says. "There's a more vigilant desire to keep things sounding wild and spontaneous."
Wilco will perform 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 29, at SunFest, on the waterfront in downtown West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $40 for a one-day pass. Go to SunFest.com.