Underrated Album Turns 20 in '21
Convenience store clerks, narcissistic nurses, family gardeners, and cat-hating voyeurs are only some of the characters who appear on the album, which for two decades now still has not received its due. On its twentieth birthday here in 2021, it is an appropriate time to send up Down with Wilco.
As suggested by the title Jeff Tweedy is involved in the project, but it is for the most part the brain child of Scott McCaughey. Having already established himself as the front man of Young Fresh Fellows, McCaughey has occasionally brought together Tweedy, John Stirrat of Wilco, and Peter Buck of REM, along with others who make up the Minus 5.
The collaboration here results in a stellar collection of thirteen songs, drawn from nearly every genre imaginable. In addition to the standard electric guitars and drums essential in rock music, McCaughey and friends employ banjos, marimbas, mandolins, harmonicas, trumpets, melotrons, and even a cello.
First to really grab the listener is the pop-oriented “Retrieval of You”, sung from the point of view of a homeless indie record producer hoping to embark on a comeback. His plan is to kidnap a former client, believing she can deliver him from his job at a mini-mart back into the music business.
“I've got a boxcar with blankets and bread, I brought a pillow for your precious head,” he pleads. “You'll be fine once you get to know me again.”
We proceed through “The Town That Lost Its Groove Supply” as we go from a kidnap to a kid, which is the subject of one of the more sentimental tracks on Down With Wilco. “Where Will You Go” is beautifully adorned with a marimba, complementing the lyrics of a father worrying about his maturing daughter.
“Where will you go when your legs won't work, where will you go in that school-girl skirt,” he asks. “If I could take you on my back. . .”
Tweedy takes the lead vocal on the next song, which could be interpreted as a retort for family members who warned him against a career in music.
“My father always said that I would never amount to anything,” he says. “But I'm the family gardener.”
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the baker's dozen has to be “View From Below,” where the previously mentioned voyeur appears. A jilted man splays himself on the floor in order to peer under his ex's bedroom door, while she entertains a lover referred to simply as The Bastard.
“In the bedroom the Bastard swings a plastic vodka jug, and I can see your penny-loafers drop onto the rug,” the voyeur explains. “”While I'm getting carpet burn when I'm turning, fighting sparks in the dark from the static.”
While lying on the floor he also notes the legs of the coffee table, three of which have been scratched up by her cat. He then makes a mental note to take the cat far off, a sick act of revenge against the subject of his spying.
After revealing this temptation to wreak revenge, the album moves on to “I'm Not Bitter.” As Shakespeare pointed out protesting too much, the character in this song declares way too often that he is not bitter.
“Bitterness is reserved for stupid people, not for someone intelligent like me,” he halfheartedly tries to convince himself. “It doesn't make much sense for me to blame you for the wreck my life's become.”
Closing the record is a track certainly inspired by a kiss off from Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding, only the object of disdain is not the landlord. “Dear Employer” is a lyrical letter of a departing worker, who criticizes his boss's pomposity, the escalator, and even the coffee.
What the Minus 5 did back in 2001 is really quite remarkable, especially when you consider the circumstances during the recording sessions. About halfway through the process had to be stalled for over a month, for the United States had suffered a deadly attack on September 11.