Thursday, January 23, 2014

Song #479 of 9999 - She's a Jar by Wilco

Song #479 of 9999

Title: She's a Jar
Artist: Wilco
Year: 1999
Album: Summerteeth

I like to think my blog is about answers. Most of you who tune in are looking for some insight as to why I think a song "works" even if you don't personally think it "works" or if we don't even agree about what "works" means. But my commentary is usually rooted in some universally accepted truths about harmonic analysis or whatever. (It's the "whatever" you really want!) So what happens when I want to share a song that raises more questions than it answers?

That's the dilemma I faced last night when I sat down and listened to "She's a Jar" about eight times in a row. Today, I had a lengthy discussion with my good friend and fellow blogger Erik Schlosser (not the food author) about the song and, by the end, I had threatened to simply write the words "this song is awesome" in my blog post and walk away. And if you want, you can stop reading this now and go enjoy the song with no interference from me!

But it wouldn't be 9999 Songs if I didn't prattle on about some such something or another. So what are these "questions" raised by the song? For starters, what is the song about? I mean, that's the main question as the musical elements are pretty straight-forward (a nicely placed diminished chord in the chorus, a cool descending chromatic progression shortly thereafter and lovely colorful accents courtesy of Jay Bennett—there, done). Jeff Tweedy pulls off a pretty neat trick with this tune, offering the strong impression of an idea without actually revealing any sort of true meaning in the song. There are songwriters who are really good at this—Bob Dylan, for example; maybe Thom Yorke—but not many. It's a dangerous line to walk and Tweedy treads it like a pro.

Is the song about a relationship? Is it about drugs? Is it about a relationship with drugs? I read a dozen interpretations on the internet and they all seemed plausible and that's what makes the lyric so remarkable. Much has been said about the last line of the song—she begs me not to hit her—with most people remarking that the song takes such a "dark turn"; however, they may be missing the antonymic connection to the last line of of the nearly identical first verse—she begs me not to miss her. If we consider the song to be about intravenous drug use (the beginning of the chorus—climb aboard the tracks of a train's arm—certainly suggests this is a possibility), the word "hit" can take on a whole new meaning. If the "her" in this case is the drug itself (Erik's suggestion!), the lines means something completely different. 

Consider this brilliant verse, which seems to be (in an obvious sense) about a photograph, but could also be about the immediate effects of drug use:
When I forget how to talk I sing
Won't you please
Bring that flash to shine
And turn my eyes red
Unless they close
When you click
And my face gets sick
Like a question unposed
In the end, I don't know for sure what the song is about and I suspect Tweedy, who was under the influence of both prescription painkillers and fine literature, doesn't know either. But I do know I feel something every time I hear it and the murky lyric somehow makes it seem more genuine.


  1. I do love me some Wilco. Summerteeth is kind of an up and down album for me, but the good songs are really good, like this one, whatever the heck it's about. I like the comment "offering the strong impression of an idea without actually revealing any sort of true meaning in the song"...I think Michael Stipe does this really well, also. Another song from this album, How To Fight Loneliness, appeared in a How I Met Your Mother episode within the past year or 2.

    1. I almost mentioned Michael Stipe! This is my favorite Wilco album. Even if a song appeared on How I Met Your Mother. ;)