Jeff Tweedy always struck me as the “odd one out.” But in never occurred to me to think of him as a schlemiel of the Woody Allen variety. Although he has an anti-hero kind of ethos and is a scruffy fellow, he has a penchant for beauty and perfection. There doesn’t seem to be anything comical about him. He’s a beautiful loser, not a schlemiel.
But when, just this morning, I saw that the title of his band, Wilco’s new album was Schmilco, I paused. Could it really be that he was shedding the beautiful loser for the schlemiel? Was he taking on a comical turn? The schlemiel detective in me was out on the scene: Was Tweedy, was Wilco, suggesting that their band meets the schlemiel half way? Did Wilco + the schlemiel = Schmilco? Or was is it, in the spirit of misfortune that Tweedy often dwells in, the Sch of the Schlmazel? The comic-bookish-schlemiel graphic they chose for the album suggests that the schlemiel (or perhaps a hybrid schlemiel/schlimazel) was in the house. But the only way to find out if the music took to the schlemiel theme was to listen to the album.
Here’s what I found.
The schlemiel, at his core, is a humble simpleton. He’s the one who wants to do good and be one of us but can’t for the life of him do it. He always ends up spilling the soup or doing some wrong. The first song “Normal American Kids” suggests that the subject of the song is the odd one out. He has a simple grudge against those “normal American kids.” He’s not one of them. And the song’s simple acoustic melody gives us a sense of the shoulder shrugging character that the song is rooted to. He was hiding under his sheets or dreaming, alone by himself, and afraid of the men (“the normal American kids”). He would rather be a luftmensh (a “person who lives on air”)and dream. As Freud once said, the artist is a day-dreamer. And, as Tweedy sings it, he’s not a part of the crowd and has better things to do such as dream and dislike them.
One thing that songs like “Nope,” “Common Sense,” and “Someone to Lose,” leave me with is a sense of misfortune that is not “completely” debilitating (only “partially”). The melodies and the lyrics are cynical and disjointed but show us that, at the very least, lyrics are being strung together. The folksy-bluesy content is there, but it’s not clear. The songs are confused, schlemiel-like yet also very cynical. “Someone to Lose” is a schlemiel like tune with a few comical notes interspersed with Beatleisms. Because it is about the fact that the schlemiel-subject may not be good enough for the other or that the other is not intersested has a Noah Baumbach feel to it (as in a film like Greenberg). But that’s a different kind of schlemiel who, to be sure, passes into the realm of the tragic. This song plays on that edge.
To be sure, many songs play on this edge and some slip from the reflections of a schlemiel to the reflections of a schlimazel. In the song, Happiness, for instance, Wilco plays a kind of melody that trudges back and forth as we hear “Happiness depends on who we blame.”
“Shrug and Destroy” also has a melancholic tinge to it. In the song we hear: “sometimes I wish to set free/ the things that still matter to me.” I can’t imagine Larry David, Charlie Chaplin, or Woody Allen saying something like this. To be sure, the voice in this and in many of the songs lack that endearing comic element. These songs invite pity. But do they invite cynicism? Isn’t that the contrary of what a schlemiel does?
The last song of the album, “Just Say Goodbye,” strikes a sad final note. It touches on a kind of exhaustion that “Sometimes….when I’m fading…I fight…stay awake….I’ll go…I’ll go so far…just to say…Goodbye.” Or “I work just…so I can say…Goodbye.”
Although there is a sadness that attends the schlemiel, it is not a melancholy. And the character’s quips are more vital than degenerative. Twitty’s singing, coupled by the music, and especially in the coda made me think that the sound that predominates in this album is the retro-sound of an album that turns on a turntable (sch-sch-sch). In our time, it is the sound of something that is fading away and spinning in circles. It’s like the lyrical content in the album. Each song circles and fades, barely remembering what was or barely able to hold on to what is.
Perhaps Schmilco is a commentary on what has happened to the band as it has passed through time. Perhaps it is more an expression of cynicism than hope. After listening to the album for the first time, I felt that it was trying to articulate the world weariness of a kind of music that Wilco tried to merge (country, folk, and rock) with something alternative.
At the very least, one can look at the cover and smile. Its schlemiel/schlimazel antics – given visual form – may help one to forget about the weary sounds of the album (the sch, sch, sch). Unfortunately, I can only look at the digital image on Spotify or google images. I can’t hold the album in my hand. Perhaps that nostalgia could keep me from experiencing the time that is lost throughout the album.
Sch, sch, sch…but, in the end, no schlemiel. There’s only a beautiful loser, a timeworn singer, saying Goodbye. When we look in the mirror, however, we realize that, in the end, it seems we have been duped. But by who? Or What? Time? Wilco? Its hard to tell. It could be all of them.
At the very least some of us can hold the album (that is, the collector items below) in our hands and realize what schlemiels we are for getting excited about it. After all, they say that schlemiels are always born too late. That’s something to giggle about. This isn’t. After all, the schlemiel (schlimazel) in these images gets electrocuted when he plugs the record player in for his daughter. That’s funny in a slapstick kind of way, but also really sad when juxtaposed to the weary sounds of the album which testify to the triumph of time over the artist, the beautiful loser, who’s only virtue is the fact that he – and his band – are still here.
Wait! I can hear another voice now. And I see a figure shrugging her shoulders. And she’s saying, with a Yiddish accent: “Wilco, Schmilco…whatever.”