Knowing What It’s Like: Why Jeff Tweedy’s “Warm” Made Me Cry

jeff tweedy_warm

WARM. Credit: dBpm Records

This isn’t an album review. This a story about a person who was curled up on a couch, severely sleep-deprived, full of anxiety about life and death, listening to Jeff Tweedy’s Warm for the first time.

I’ve written about Wilco before. About how their music and Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics are one of the few things in the world that makes me feel tethered to it, not alien. About how one of their songs, lyrics I have tattooed on my body, saved my life in a not-quite-metaphorical way.

It sounds odd to say, but I forgot that I’m probably always going to be a little bit in need of saving until I started listening to Warm.

Warm is mostly a quiet record, more folk heavy than rock, with songs built around the acoustic guitar. And it’s easy to listen to, until it punches you in the gut.

There’s an introspection to Tweedy’s lyrics that is always remarkably honest, sometimes straying toward the side of darkness. Here in Warm he writes about death, missed chances, mistakes, the meaningless of all of this. He shows you his scars and the shit he’s still working through, all while writing a damn good melody.

The thing is that honesty is hard, being open is hard. One of the requirements for being a good person (if you want to be a good person) is to be an open listener to others even when the conversations are difficult. But that also requires being open with yourself.

And the difficult thing about people is that we aren’t consistent. We’re processes. We change with our environment and our experiences, both internal and external. I find that inconsistency hard to deal with even within myself.

In the song “Don’t Forget,” which sounds like it was written to his sons, Tweedy sings the words don’t forget that everyone thinks about dying. Then he counters it with a reminder to brush your teeth. And it’s that kind of juxtaposition, the profound and the mundane, that resonates with this inconsistent, serious and frivolous, creature that I am.

Lately especially I’m having a hard time being part a world that seems absurdly cruel. I feel complicit. I feel like I’m shouting into the void.

In “Bombs Above,” Tweedy writes:

All my life I’ve played a part
In the bombs above the ones you love
I’m taking a moment to apologize
I should have done more to stop the war

But at the same time, I feel that void inside me. And I am alone.

In “From Far Away,” Tweedy asks Could I find a world just right? Or will I always search too high? When you’re like me and you feel like nothing most of the time, those questions become rhetorical.

Exposing yourself, opening your chest cavity and letting other people see that thing beating inside you is a gift that some people give us. Part of me hates Jeff Tweedy a little that he gets to do this for a living. Not the touring part, that sounds exhausting and scary, but writing and being brave enough to share those parts of himself that most people try never to expose.

I can’t write music or make art, and very few people will ever read my fiction. In that fiction, I can tell a story okay, but I’ve never been able to expose my own heart in a way that anyone else wants to see.

I believe other people when they tell me about their pain. I see it. I recognize it. But when Jeff Tweedy sings about his, I feel it in a different way. This is pain I understand, this is my own pain being reflected back at me. Of course, Tweedy and I are very different people. I carry burdens he doesn’t, and vice versa. And I don’t hear my soul in every song.

But it’s in enough songs on Warm that I sat in the fetal position on my couch on Saturday morning and cried while listening to “I Know What It’s Like.”

Even when I’m wide awake
I keep turning back one page
I can’t find the plot
Something else is taking shape
I know what it’s like to keep losing your place

To hear yourself in a song is like feeling seen, especially in a melancholy song. Because for three minutes, someone else recognizes you and gets you and validates your pain. Pain you can’t share with people you know, because you don’t want to burden them, or maybe you’ve tried and just they don’t get it, or they want to help and there’s nothing that can.

It might be a burden on Tweedy to write, to share, to record, to find the right hollow sounding guitar with warm tones. But I’m enormously grateful he does, because sometimes it’s the only way I feel seen at all. Sometimes it’s the only reminder I get that I’m a person. Because there I am in “Having Been Is No Way To Be.”

I’m writing all the time
I don’t see deep, but I see far and wide
I see dead trees, but the roots have leaves
Just because I can’t describe it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try
To untwist the knife, to unmake my mind
Having been is no way to be alive

Jeff Tweedy will never know me, who I am, or any of the shit that goes on in my head that makes me feel like a wisp of a person, a shadow that is somehow still always burdened by the three-dimensional world. And even if I could describe whatever it is I am, he probably wouldn’t understand anyway because that’s the fleeting, changing, plotless nature of being human, of being sad about nothing in particular but life and the whole world. It’s too much for me to describe, and sometimes all it does is come out in a cathartic sob.

But, well, I know what it’s like.

So maybe he would.

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