Jesus, Etc.: According to the Apostle Tweedy
By Kelly Dearmore
In a 2009 interview with the Christian pop-culture magazine Relevant, Jeff Tweedy tells writer Kevin Selders “I can’t remember a time where [spirituality] wasn’t something I thought about.” Although Tweedy goes on to clarify later in the piece that he doesn’t strictly align with any one denomination, any astute Tweedy fan knows his songs—with Wilco or outside of Wilco--have long dealt in religious, otherworldly matters in various forms.
In some cases, the spiritual mention is little more than an indirect, nebulous reference. In other instances, such as the 2006 Tweedy side-project Loose Fur album, Born Again in the USA, organized religion is the butt of a clever turn-of-phrase laugh.
“Jesus, Etc…” (2002)
Released in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, lyrics such as “tall buildings shake / voices escape singing sad, sad songs” grabbed plenty of attention, although the album was recorded before that horrific day. The cutting, sweeping violin also asserts itself prominently here. The song doesn’t actually dig into religious realms—it’s more an impassioned plea to a partner--although the majestic imagery offered throughout the tune is often of biblical proportions.
“Theologians” and “Hell is Chrome” (2004)
The jaunty, piano-powered ditty lyrically opens with the indictment “Theologians don’t know nothing about my soul.” It’s tempting to generally accept the song as a comprehensive, straight-forward shunning of narrow-minded, judgmental types, but there are some interesting theories about the possible identity of the song’s narrator out there. Tom Beaudoin of America: The Jesuit Review suggests that at the end, when Tweedy sings “Where I’m going you cannot come,” the perspective is that of Jesus, and not of Tweedy himself. Another gem from A Ghost is Born, the moody “Hell is Chrome,” features the devil himself paying a visit to the narrator.
“One True Vine” (2007)
Just as he can voice cutting, oft-satirical insight into the skeptic’s view of Christianity, Tweedy knows how to elegantly speak in the tongue of the converted. With lyrics such as “Life had ceased / I was lost and tired / You set me free / From this mighty, mighty fire,” “One True Vine” was an ideal choice to become the title cut for the Tweedy-produced 2013 album from gospel icon Mavis Staples.
“I’ll Fight” (2009)
War, sacrifice, and the often-false comfort derived from going through the Sunday morning service motions are poetically proffered here over a rhythmic, soul-tinged roots-rock arrangement. As the song ends and the narrator dramatically lays his martyrdom bare, singing “And if I die, I'll die, I'll die alone like Jesus / On a cross / My faith cannot by tossed / And my life will not be lost / If my love comes across.” It’s hard to tell if he believes fully in what he’s saying or if he’s trying to convince himself that the fate awaiting him is as noble as he’s been told.
Let’s Go Rain (2018)
From Tweedy’s solo album WARM, this countrified sing-along gem carries the full-throated joy many children’s Sunday school standards possess. A great deal of the lyrics might just be ripped straight from a Trump-loving televangelist’s teleprompter. When Tweedy sings gleefully “Oh, I've heard about Noah's flood / Washed away a world of sin / Some say destruction is an act of love / And think it should happen again” the catastrophic judgement almost seems fun.
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Kelly Dearmore is a music writer based in Dallas. He has written for The Dallas Morning News, Houston Press and Lone Star Music.