This Is Your Song: Jeff Tweedy's New Book Makes Us Think About How We Connect With Our Favorite Music
Back in 2009, I actually heard Wilco for the first time.
It’s not that I didn’t know the band’s music, but it was the first time I had developed an emotional connection to one of their songs.
It was “You and I,” a heartwarming duet with Feist from the band’s self-titled album. The track addresses two lovers trying to preserve a relationship as Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy sings, “You and I, we might be strangers / However close we get sometimes / It’s like we never met.”
While I’ve never met Tweedy and or any of the other Wilco members, “You and I” emanates a comforting familiarity in terms of its memorable lyrics, bittersweet harmonies, and smooth bassline.
There’s an unexplainable pull I feel to it, and it’s something Tweedy easily masters after nearly three decades of writing Wilco songs.
“I’m much more fascinated by the blurry area between a song and the mind that receives it, puts it back together in a shape that fits their own life, and allows the heart to take ownership,” writes Tweedy in his latest book, World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music.
That statement nicely encapsulates the key takeaway from Tweedy’s third book, which highlights the memorable connections—both positive and negative—he’s made with 50 different songs throughout his life.
It also explores how listening to music is a highly personal and immersive experience for each of us. Every time we hear a song, we create our own world and feel vulnerable when we invite another person into that intimate space.
“It’d be cool if we could see the worlds within the songs inside each other’s heads. But I also love how impenetrable it all is,” writes Tweedy. “I love that what’s mine can’t be yours and we still get to call it ours. Songs are the essence of this condition. And in my opinion, they’re the best way I know of to make peace with our lack of a shared consciousness.”
Luckily, Tweedy invites us into his amusing and enlightening headspace throughout World Within a Song. He shared some of those heady thoughts (and a few Wilco acoustic tunes) with April Baer, host of Michigan Radio’s Stateside, during a Literati Bookstore-sponsored event last month at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Auditorium.
During that conversation and throughout World Within a Song, Tweedy reflects on a panoply of artists and songs, ranging from Leo Sayers’ “Long Tall Glasses (I Can Dance)” to Patti Smith’s “Gloria” to Slovenly’s “As If It Always Happens” to The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.”
Each chapter is written in a style that reads like Tweedy is speaking directly to you. After having seen Tweedy and Wilco live regularly since 2010, I’m familiar with the tone of voice—self-deprecating-humor-meets-witty-commentary—he often shares with audiences at shows.
“Writing [2018’s Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)] taught me that I can do it, and one of the ways I taught myself to do it was to read out loud a lot,” said Tweedy during the Literati event.
“I wanted it to sound like if you were with me and you were interested in what I was saying, I would sound like myself. I got a little bit better at it with the next book and a little bit more comfortable because it was a topic that I love … and this book is an extension of that.”
In between his song chapters, Tweedy also sprinkles in tidbits called Rememories, which function as “dreamlike passages recounting specific events in [his] life.”
“On one hand, I hope that they’ll work as palate cleansers between chapters as we re-emerge from the thick weeds of my internal and endless musing on the weight of songs …,” writes Tweedy. “But I also included them to illustrate how my deep immersion in music has shaped how I really think and remember things in ‘song-sized’ thoughts and shapes."
They recall vivid moments that span from childhood to adulthood: being shamed out of the Cub Scouts, becoming a hat-wearing kind of guy, bonding with local punk-rocker Terry in Tweedy’s hometown of Belleville, Illinois, remembering to duplicate Uncle Tupelo’s first demo tape, and using a traumatizing toilet at CBGB’s.
Those Rememories allow readers to quickly maneuver from one reflection to the next while connecting with Tweedy’s wins and losses. Two of them will remain burned in my memory—“Coachella” and “Heart of Glass”—after having read World Within a Song.
In “Coachella,” Tweedy reflects on being in rehab and struggling with frequent panic attacks. He was surprised when a guy working the night shift at the facility recognized him and asked, “I was just curious, are you guys still playing Coachella?”
Tweedy responds, “What do you think?” I can just hear Tweedy answering the rehab employee’s question in a wry tone. That type of response made me chuckle and reminded me of something I might say if I were exhausted mentally and physically like Tweedy was.
Reading that Rememory also took me back to the time when I had landed in the hospital in March 2021 due to exhaustion and stress. I was working a demanding job, grieving the loss of my mother, and experiencing pandemic fatigue.
I had heart palpitations and passed out twice at home the night before. I decided to go to the ER the next morning and was kept overnight for observation.
The following day, I received an echocardiogram and discovered there was nothing wrong physically. Instead, I made a promise to myself to quit my job and did so two months later.
Another Rememory, “Heart of Glass,” highlights how Tweedy received a “heart-sized, crimson, hand-blown glass paperweight” from a fan in Montana. He cherished the gift since his late mother had collected ruby-red glass eggs, globes, and obelisks.
It also provided Tweedy with some comfort after learning from his sister that their brother was experiencing serious heart issues.
“My dead mother’s heart. My sick brother’s heart. My sister’s heart. My heart. I wept. It’s on my amp every night,” writes Tweedy.
I wept after reading that Rememory because it made me think of my late mother. While my mother didn’t collect glass paperweights, she collected music, and every time I hear Fleetwood Mac, Donna Summer, or The Little River Band, I think of her and return to my childhood.
And speaking of childhood, Tweedy received a crate of records from his brother at age nine in 1976 “in exchange for a promise to never order records from the Columbia House record club.” That fateful crate included albums by Aphrodite’s Child, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Bob Dylan, and others.
“And I just didn’t own them, I LISTENED to them. I learned them. I formed an internal culture warped by the cosmic experiment of giving an anomalous set of references to an unworldly though curious musical mind,” writes Tweedy.
Tweedy’s curiosity led him to pull Patti Smith’s Horses from the crate and connect with the opening track, “Gloria,” after first hearing it as a child. The song’s opening lyric, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” appealed to his skepticism of organized religion and a need for youthful rebellion.
“Hearing these words in the environment I lived in, at the age I heard them, felt dangerous,” writes Tweedy. “I still dream of possessing Patti’s fearlessness, but that’s beside the point. I needed this music. I’m lucky it found me at such an early age. Any later might have been too late. Some might describe this event as divine intervention.”
Like Tweedy, I can credit finding an album from my brother’s tape collection as a divine intervention of sorts. When I was 11, I found a cassette of Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night, heard “Big Love,” and became instantly hooked. I claimed the album as my own and dove into the band’s back catalog the summer after fifth grade.
In World Within a Song, Tweedy also shares music that didn’t resonate with him—at least not initially. 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” made him feel “super icky” when he heard the middle section of the song, which features atmospheric electric piano and whispery vocals.
“The part where it sounds like you’re coming out of a coma, stuck inside your body, unable to move or communicate but aware of the people whispering around your hospital bed …,” writes Tweedy.
As an adult, Tweedy viewed the song through a different lens and appreciated the parts he overlooked as a child.
“But the thing that kills me now when I hear this song is how masterfully conceived it is. From the arrangement to the tonal textures chosen, this recording creates its own internal logic,” he writes.
“A feat of engineering few songs ever come close to. It sounds like no other song on earth, an alien-sounding song about alienation, and at the same time it was so successful in that it became a massive hit.”
Tweedy’s right because I connected with “I’m Not in Love” in 1990 when Miami dance-pop duo Will to Power covered it on their Journey Home album. I remember hearing the song when I was 14 and noticing something familiar about it, but couldn’t quite place it at the time.
It turns out all the adult-contemporary radio stations (in particular, Lansing’s 99.1 WFMK) my mom listened to when I was a kid frequently played 10cc’s original version.
While Tweedy didn’t like that “middle section” as a kid, I sure did. It explains why I love a lot of music today—especially stuff in the pop vein—that some might consider “overproduced” due to the multiple loops and layers that are used in the recording process.
On the flip side, Tweedy introduced many artists and songs that are “new” to me, including Lene Lovich’s “Lucky Number,” Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop,” The Undertones’ “Forever Paradise,” Frank Proffitt’s “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” Rosalía’s “Bizchochito,” and a few others.
As I’ve gotten older, my philosophy is to listen to all kinds of music and appreciate what an artist brings to each song. There are some songs I digest and connect with right away while others take some time to grow. The goal is to hear it, think about it, and learn from it.
“And how much they have taught me to be human—how to think of myself and others,” writes Tweedy. “And how deeply personal and universally vast the experience of listening to almost anything with intent and openness can be. And most importantly, how songs absorb and enhance our own experiences and store our memories.”
That mindset continues to keep me a fan of Tweedy and Wilco and reminds me of why I love music in the first place: creating an emotional connection that’s unique on an individual level, but shared unbeknownst to so many others as part of a collective consciousness.
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.