Sukierae‘s opening track seems to be saying, “Fuck you.” Its punny title is for all the Nina Simone/Animals fans out there, but in actuality, “Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood” belies its seriousness. The guitars are heavy, full of repetitious, atonal clangs. Jeff Tweedy’s voice, calm but firm, lives in the eye of the hurricane as he verbalizes his thoughts, which include, among other things, “I don’t wanna give you satisfaction,” “Boring/ You’re so fucking boring,” “I don’t wanna be so understood! Boring! Boring! Boring!”
This kind of directness might throw off Tweedy’s longtime fans, who are used to clever koans and metaphors. Counting his time in Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, this is his 15th studio LP. Tweedy is his third band, and considering that his son Spencer is this one’s drummer, it’d be easy to label Sukierae as a vanity or side project, uncertain of its goals. Of those labels, only the third one applies. A sense of curiosity dominates Sukierae: It makes confident advances in several directions — love, fear, getting high, despair, joy, remembrance — and does so often at the same damn time. The album continuously surprises on both lyrical and sonic fronts.
Maybe it’s having a familial relation on drums or maybe it’s the shedding of the famed Wilco brand. Whatever the case, Sukierae lets Tweedy throw together sounds from those past 14 albums to deliver his best work since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That in the middle of recording, Jeff’s wife/Spencer’s mom was diagnosed with cancer is horrifying, but even listening to it free of that context it’s clear that Tweedy — both the family and band — went through major changes while recording. As if delivering that point, the album never quite settles into a comfortable routine.
Take “World Away,” the album’s third track. Spencer clears the room with an aggressive blues-shuffle beat and Jeff sings about how technology is isolating. The guitar starts off matching them, but then spins itself into a tense oblivion. Or “Slow Love,” with its swamp-at-sunrise electronic opening and ghostly background vocals — provided by Lucius’s Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig — suggesting that “Slow love is the only way.” Tweedy trades their voices in for a high-pitched tone, fitting into the song’s message of how building love can be more vital than defining it with words: “We never needed to know what it was/ So it was, and it was there.” The voices return but with their words slurred together. Later, there’s the plinking piano of “Where My Love,” which helps Tweedy predict the advanced stages of that relationship: “I wanna watch you grow old and dumb/ I wanna see what you and I become” he says. The album’s lyrics jump around like the album’s sounds, working to fit each other and focusing in on time, and how it’s changed.
Time is also the album’s one great flaw — together the 20 tracks run for an hour and 16 minutes. But with Tweedy’s interests changing from song to song — for all the talk of the joys of long-term relationships and love, there’s also “Hazel,” with its sneering refrain “Nobody loves you, nobody cares” — there’s no need to dwell on the forgettable tracks. Does Sukierae truly need songs that feel like they’re out of the Stephen Foster songbook (“Wait for Love”) or bedroom-recording-style loneliness (“Pigeons”)? No, but Tweedy wouldn’t have gotten the good stuff here without exploring everything, mediocre included. Ignoring Tweedy’s opening command, Sukierae‘s main plotline seems to be that of a father showing his son all he’s learned, and a son eager to experiment. Dad rock has come full circle.