Monday, April 13, 2009

#32 Song of the Decade- "Jesus, Etc."

Wilco- "Jesus, Etc."

To me, one is not truly educated or intelligent until he admits how little he actually knows. Realizing that you are small and powerless and somewhat inconsequential in the grand scheme of things is, paradoxically, one of the keys to transcending those limitations. No one has all the answers to life's mysteries, and the most dangerous people in the world are the ones who believe they do. To even scratch the surface of the nature of your existence, you have to be humbled by this fact.

Succumbing to that fear and owning what you don't know is the key to enjoying life. I wouldn't know how to build a computer, but I'm using one right now. I don't know the intricacies of how a car works, but I drive to my job every day. And if I did lend enough of myself to learn everything about a computer or a car, it would be at the expense of something else.

I think Jeff Tweedy was wrestling with this idea when he wrote "Jesus, Etc." for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Except instead of those things I just mentioned, he uses a motif of something even bigger and more intimidating: the solar system. Over and over, the speaker of the song assures a lover, "You were right about the stars/Each one is a setting sun," and it seems as if he's trying to convince himself of that fact. This is something he didn't understand--maybe even argued with her about--but he is admitting it to her to redeem himself. Through a willful ignorance of the mechanics of the world around him, he is able to become closer to the person right in front of him. In fact, the only lines repeated more than that are: "Last cigarette/Is all you can get/Turning your orbit around." Once you can find solace in tiny pleasures, you can look at the world in an entirely new way. Those small elements, along with the camaraderie of other people, turn out to be more valuable than anything else.

At other points in the song, Tweedy uses synesthesia to establish this contradiction as the lover's "voice is smoking," and he "strums down her cheek." In fact, the tension is reinforced by the music from the beginning, as the low-end of an upright bass tangles with a high-pitched string pattern.

Eventually, the strings win out and get their own moment in the My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nachos. As their tremolo fades out all by their lonesome, we finally feel a resolution to this existential tug-of-war. In the end, Tweedy proves to us that we can only find clarity through confusion.

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