An intimate, moving experience interrupted by Wilcoisms
With COVID-19 destroying tours, Jeff Tweedy decided there was nothing better to do than retreat into the studio with his two sons and record his fourth solo album in four years, and that doesn’t include that politically charged Wilco record from 2019 called Ode to Joy. With this set-up, the expectation would be a more restrained, straight-forward alt-country or folk record devoid of Wilco’s wonkiness. Indeed, Love Is The King comes closest to repeating the quiet, undersold Together at Last, though it possesses his brightest musical palette to date. It has some of the most direct, borderline corny moments on any of his solo records and a few genuinely stellar songs, yet the blending of different tones holds it back from being a great record.
As he gets older, Tweedy has started to engage in more direct songwriting as opposed to off-beat, kooky, more opaque fables like “Gwendolyn.” It’s initially strange to hear him deliver the Rhett Miller-esque sense of wit on “Natural Disaster,” “Even I Can See” and “Guess Again” that could so easily turn into middle-aged dad jokes, yet the results are moving and effective. Part of this is some truly stunning harmonies between him and his son on “A Robin Or A Wren” that sells a beautiful sentiment of being okay with passing on and looking forward to your family and friends remembering one with fondness. The poignancy does not end there as the overall theme of finding solace with someone else in the midst of turmoil come through in a sincere and powerful way through lines like “It’s been a bad day lately/ A lonely place I can’t endure/ Being so far away/ Always makes things worse” on “Bad Day Lately” and “A light left on in an empty room/ Is how a love can be” on “Save It For Me.”
The music also flows and adjust to the various moods put forth, switching from slow, methodical plucks and sharp power chords to match the monotony and spikes of discontent of “Bad Day Lately,” to the plucked bass and acoustic flusters of the intimate, lovestruck “Even I Can See,” to the foreboding echoes of “Half Asleep” that give a straight-forward motivational anthem more depth by implying a sense of danger and uncertainty to his words. It’s a gorgeous, sparse, open record as a whole, especially when it comes to the acoustics and bass guitar, which is refreshing from some of the coldness of the ironically titled Warm (2018) and Warmer (2019). Not every music choice fits the lyrics as well as these, though. Even when a song tries to be intimate between some gentle acoustics and Tweedy’s hushed, thoughtful delivery, he keeps trying to ram in these more discordant tones and effects that would be better suited for a Wilco record. Some of these do work in adding additional layers to otherwise simple sentiments like the aforementioned “Half Asleep,” but other times, the tones do not work with one another.
The album opens on an especially jarring example on the title track, with a shrieking solo that goes on forever with no direction, which pops up again on the following song “Opaline” and ruins a pleasant, jangly vibe. The bridge of “Bad Day Lately” has the electric guitar fading in and out in a rather sloppy way, like the mic, kept getting turned on and off in the recording booth, and “Gwendolyn” wastes a tense bass line on rather lazy electric licks that are trying to contribute tension and yet take it away instead.
It’s a shame when other songs on the record like “Even I can See” combine electric and acoustic elements well, or where the discordant elements mange to significantly to the complexity of a song’s message. Tweedy has already made his stripped-down acoustic session on Together at Last, so it’s unlikely he would ever want to repeat it. Still, Love Is The King is a good record that could become great if some of the harsher tones were shaved down or given lyrics to support them better.