I’m glad I read Jeff Tweedy’s new book, “World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music,” before I listened to Wilco’s new album “Cousin” because it reminded me that the relationship between a song and a listener is a personal experience. We fall in love with a song and its collective impact ripples out universally. Songs can speak to us, teach us, inspire us and heal us, and when we share what they mean to us, we don’t feel alone. His book reminded me how the process works and gave me much to reflect on as a pop-music lover. This conversational and concise memoir through songs is fun, funny, insightful and enormously relatable.
“World Within a Song” is a collection of fifty listener-song relationships—interspersed with some short, palate-cleansing, dreamlike “Rememories” from Tweedy’s life—that focus on other people’s songs and what they have taught him about “how to be human.” He wrote it, he says, not because his private insights about these songs are so illuminating, but because over years of songwriting and touring he’s realized that other people share a lot of them. Music-loving humans love to talk about music because it makes us feel understood. It’s a form of group therapy. Listening to music is deeply personal and universal at the same time. Tweedy’s experience with a particular song can’t possibly be the same as mine or yours, but the song remains the same for all of us to experience individually. It doesn’t even matter which songs he chose—he says he could have easily picked fifty or a thousand others—but how these seminal songs spoke to him and what they have imprinted on him are what matter. As he says, “I love that what’s mine can’t be yours, but we still get to call it ours.”
I chimed in to the conversation actively to myself while reading this book. No one who has heard these selections could help it. Talking about the impact songs have had on us is confessional. As the book is organized sort of chronologically, many early selections serve as glimpses into a painfully shy youth, while later ones display the introspection of an artist. Some of these hilariously told memories began more awkward than enjoyable, and their value wasn’t realized until years later. Take the earworm of Leo Sayer’s “Long Tall Glasses,” a song that played ad nauseam on the radio back in the early seventies. Tweedy’s father would regularly revel in this pop nugget after a few beers. Watching his dad break out into the epiphanous eureka of “I CAN DANCE!!” as if on a torturous loop served to outline for young Jeff the path he absolutely was not going to take in life as a musician, partner or parent. But decades later as he occasionally listens to the song, it’s a portal for him to share the company of his now-deceased father again and re-witness his joy along with his own. This is the power of a song.
Music can teach us surprising lessons. Have you ever loved a cover and not known it was one? How did it feel when you found out? Nine-year-old Tweedy’s older cousin would put on shows at family barbecues playing uncredited classics like BTO’s “Takin’ Care of Business.” Young Jeff thought for years it was his cousin’s song, and his admiration made him believe that “writing a song and singing it was not only a way to tap into the divine, it was normal.” It gave him permission. When he later realized his cousin had not penned the songs he played, it didn’t matter. He still felt the magic and accessibility of the live performance.
Another lesson, learned from “Mull of Kintyre”: If you get goosebumps from listening to a guilty pleasure, go with it. Don’t override your body with critical thinking. Let yourself enjoy it. Relatedly, from “Dancing Queen,” if you feel it coming on, let yourself have a change of heart. It feels good to stop hating something. Another: staying up late with your mom to watch TV can magically transport you both out of your daily grind where if you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of her enchanted, and you might realize she likes a crazy new wave song like Lene Lovich’s “Lucky Number.” I’ve run out of room but my Cliffs Notes deprive you of the reminiscences and context of how these lessons were learned. Great songs and well-told stories like the ones in this book are where we find space to relate.
Wilco’s new album “Cousin” is a sonically gorgeous collection that muses lyrically and broodingly on themes including broken relationships, the cultural divide in our country, and mass violence. Tweedy invited Welsh artist Cate LeBon to produce the record after he heard and liked her inventive cover of a Wilco song and they became friends. Nice choice to mix things up.
There’s a collage-ey, dreamlike quality to the changing volume of instruments, in and out of prominence within songs, that complements the steadiness of his calm voice yet belies the heft of subject matter he sings about. Inspired by Tweedy’s own family, “Cousin” addresses the political divide in American families for which Trump has been the most devastating catalyst. I first heard “Ten Dead” after learning about Hamas’ horrifying attack on Israel, and I thought fearfully, there are way more than ten. Tweedy has said he wrote it in response to a newscaster reporting, “There are only ten dead,” after yet another act of mass violence, insanely, as if ten were a reasonable number.
The poetry of “Sunlight Ends” beautifully depicts a relationship between two lost souls: “You dance / Like the dust in the light / Where the sun comes in / And I’m following / Until the sunlight ends.” “Infinite Surprise” starts with a loud, anxiety-provoking (in me) percussive stopwatch while he sings existentially about meaninglessness, disappointing a lover, and wondering who he’d be without them, until it melts and shifts into beautiful orchestration and the percussion fades until the end, while he acknowledges the infinite surprise of being alive, and that it’s good to know we won’t always be. So many songs filled with questions on this record that this song’s last line answers: it’s good to know.
“World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music”
By Jeff Tweedy
Dutton, 256 pages
“Cousin” by Wilco, dBpm Records