Just moments into the album-opening “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” swelling keyboards are joined by aimless, then steady, drums, which then promptly disappear, replaced by what sounds like a ringing telephone, maybe a piano, and then, unmistakably, and acoustic guitar. It’s familiar, but it’s seems out of place. Then the bass kicks in, hard and pronounced. The drums come back, tense and with great purpose. By the time we hear Tweedy sing the lines “I am an American aquarium drinker/ I assassin down the avenue,” everything feels so strange, you almost don’t realize you have not the slightest idea what the fuck he’s talking about. This goes on for just shy of seven minutes—you get shakers, a big piano melody, lots of fuzz, part of the chorus from another song on the record sung quietly beneath blaring noise—and the only way I’ve ever been able to describe how it makes me feel is drunk. Like, late-night, on the verge of vomiting, but still pretty sure I’ve just discovered the answers to everything drunk. Think back to the song’s first line, to the other lyrics about letting something good get away from you, and one wonders if it was done on purpose, especially given Tweedy’s struggles with addiction that would become news just a few years later.
And it’s not difficult to read the rest of the album in a similar light. On the misleadingly upbeat “Kamera,” Tweedy sings, “I need a camera to my eye/To my eye, reminding/Which lies I’ve been hiding.” At first it’s just a vague acknowledgment of guilt, but then it’s a cry for help: “Phone my family/Tell them I’m lost on the sidewalk/And no, it’s not ok.” Effective lines made even more effective when you realize how far you can take the idea of being lost: sad lyrics on an upbeat song, plainspoken (literally almost spoken) vocals taking center stage on an album full of almost unidentifiable noises.
“Radio Cure” brings more confessions: “Cheer up, honey, I hope you can/There is something wrong with me,” while “War on War” offers the album’s first sign that things might someday improve: “You have to learn how to die if you wanna be alive.” But by “Ashes of American Flags,” he’s back to harping on his own failings again with a line that works better in a song than it would in a conversation: “All my lies are only wishes.”
The album’s most upbeat songs appear back to back: “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You.” Heavy Metal is a mostly lighthearted track that also states very simply: “I miss the innocence I’ve known.” “I’m the Man Who Loves You” is on the lighter side as well, though it’s still about not quite being able to say something that needs to be said.