Monday, April 20, 2015

Song #519 of 9999 - Low Key by Tweedy

Song #519 of 9999

Title: Low Key
Artist: Tweedy
Year: 2014
Album: Sukierae

In my estimation, Sukierae, the "solo album" by Jeff Tweedy and his teenaged son Spencer, is as good as (almost) any Wilco album. It's underproduced and the musicianship is not as stellar as that on, say, Sky Blue Sky, where guitarist Nels Cline plants his indelible flag of virtuosity. But in its place are more than a dozen great songs (there are 20 total—let's not throw the word "great" around willy-nilly) and intimate reflection we rarely get from the Wilco's recordings. Tweedy describes the recordings as having "unrealized potential" and he celebrates the idea of leaving the recordings in a spare state and not overworking them.

On Halloween Day last year, I was lucky enough to be one of about 30 people in attendance at a live radio broadcast from the SiriusXM Studios that featured Jeff and Spencer Tweedy performing a handful of songs from the record and discussing the inspiration and making of the record. The interview was illuminating as the charming duo talked about Jeff's wife going through cancer treatment, what it's like to be touring as father and son, what kinds of guitars Jeff prefers and, most important, how the songs are written. It had been reported that Tweedy wrote over 90 songs prior to recording and, when asked, he responded with an answer only a songwriter would understand: "What you think of as a song and what I think of as a song are probably pretty far apart." (paraphrasing) Basically, he said he had 90 ideas he felt he could develop into full-fledged songs with a lot of work. This is something I think is often lost on people: that a songwriter can get pretty excited about the smallest spark of an idea and see the potential of that idea very early, even if he never actually fleshes it out. (I have a lot of "songs" like that, just sitting around my brain, collecting dust. They're the best songs I've never written.)

Anyway, I could have chosen any number of songs to feature from Sukierae. It's a spectacular album and the understated, but extremely effective, drumming of Spencer Tweedy is one of the most pleasant surprises on the record. I chose "Low Key" because it has a really interesting harmonic structure that relates to one of my recent posts. Back in Song #509, I talked about how the tonal center of Maroon 5's "Payphone" is hidden somewhat by the circular progression that begins on the dominant (V) and ends on the subdominant (IV) with the tonic (I) tucked in the middle. "Low Key" does something similar in that the verse avoids the tonic (E) altogether:

Chords: A            G#m     F#m         F#m                    B 
Words:  I want to let it be known  |   Ever since I was young      
      I've always been a refugee    |   Of the very high strung           
           I've always been low key  |   Let's let the record show    |  No....

When the tonic finally comes on the word "no," it's a very satisfying arrival because it has been kept from us for so long! There's an unusual meter thing that adds another level of intrigue. Each line of the verse is actually 4.5 bars long (18 beats total) except the final line, which is the more traditional 4 bars long. This gives the effect of arriving to the chorus a bit early, which is kind of interesting. But the real pièce de resistance for this music theorist happens on the final line of the chorus. When Tweedy sings "I'm gonna love you the same" over the chords A G#m F#m (remember those from above?), the line both ends the chorus and begins the second verse. Love it.

And as if that weren't enough, they made a really cute video for the song (directed by Nick Offerman) that you can watch here.

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