Listen to this track by Chicagoan progressive pop-rock sextet Wilco. It’s “Deeper Down”, a gem of a song as it appeared on their 2009 album Wilco (The Album), their sixth LP.
At this point in their arc, the band as led by frontman and head writer Jeff Tweedy had drifted away from the more abrasive and experimental textures they had established at the beginning of that decade. In their place, they added more vintage AM/FM radio textures and more accessible song structures. But at the same time, the proficiency in the playing and in the arrangements were on another level from their past output. Thematically speaking, there was certainly a lot going on that was not traditional for rock songwriting.
In “Deeper Down”, and using various strains of rock music, particularly progressive rock, Tweedy takes on a subject that writers of all stripes have taken on for thousands of years; the mystery of life itself. Of course in this song, he goes one better. He doesn’t try to solve it.
Jeff Tweedy’s writing has always been introspective. Here on this song, it’s downright philosophical, although not overbearingly so. I think that’s an easy trap for a lesser talent to fall into, trying to say something about the human experience and coming off as reaching beyond their grasp, oversimplifying things for the sake of a lyrical hook. Being alive, and what that means to us isn’t always so simple. Here, matched with Wilco’s sound, the songwriting allows for ambiguity, relying less on straight narratives and more on how language and symbols make us feel as we hear them. That kind of approach is harder to bring off, although Tweedy and company had been at it awhile by the time Wilco (The Album) came out. Maybe this is because in more recent years, or at least ever since the turn of the century, a certain guiding principle has always been central to where their material comes from; chaos.
“Deeper Down” is no exception to this, mixing Beatle-esque melody with what sounds to me like Steve Hackett-era Genesis textures in the instrumental passages. An important ingredient here is down to the subtlties of Nels Cline on a sustained and spare guitar line that serves as a colour to the song, and not a part that demands attention away from Tweedy’s voice. In this song, we’re presented with a boxing metaphor that has a figure who is “punched out”, with physical sensations being to the forefront, latter to be compared to the “ocean floor”, a classic metaphor for the subconcious, the depths of the human mind. All of this serves as a backdrop to a series of sketches that touch on the concept of consciousness. The physical and the seen that we know in our lives is brought together with the distinctly unknown and unseen elements that we also know, although we find harder to define.
This brings up another important theme in the human experience stakes, and that is the subject of certainty. In this song, there are no answers or connecting commonalities between one aspect of life and another. Sometimes, there just isn’t a pattern to follow, even though we are literally wired to find one. Sometimes, we’re too punched out in the struggles of our lives to know when it give it up. In the middle of all of that we’re often not sure of what it is that drives us to do the things we do, dredged up from our own personal ocean floors. Yet in this song, all of this isn’t agonized over. There is no call to the heavens in this song, demanding to know why things are the way they are. There is a certain amount of contentment in this song, acknowledging chaos, and not necessarily railing against it. In fact, in this song, the “meaningless of this that we can’t express” is celebrated.
There is something to be said about the role of uncertainty in our lives, of not really understanding the depths of our existence. Demanding certainty is a tiring business. Sometimes it even does us harm, and certainly can cause harm to others. I don’t even have to talk about fundamentalist religions and philosophies to prove that point. I think that’s why this song resonates so well with me; that it is OK with chaos, and that it is ultimately about letting go of the things that are beyond our control and understanding, and feeling the comfort of a kiss instead, held in each moment and savouring it before it inevitably passes for good.
Wilco are an active band today, having released their most recent album to date, Star Wars, their ninth. You can find out the latest at wilcoworld.net.