Wilco bring their beautiful new album, The Whole Love, to a close with a poignant 12-minute, 10-verse track entitled “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley‘s Boyfriend).” Serendipitous title aside, I think the song makes an excellent Sunday morning soundtrack for several reasons.
The full lyrics of the song are available here. According to frontman Jeff Tweedy, the song is about a conversation he once had with novelist Jane Smiley’s boyfriend, who is left unnamed on the track. At the time, this man had recently suffered the death of his harsh, judgmental, and highly religious father. Because the father condemned his son for not sharing his faith (or, perhaps more precisely, for not sharing his manner and intensity of faith), the death brought about mixed feelings in the son (“My father said what I had become / No one should be”).
Being at his father’s bedside as he passed away caused the son to reflect on his relationship with his father. The son apparently first felt a feeling of relief upon his father’s passing, given how harsh the father had been toward his son. “I feel relief, I feel well / Now he knows he was wrong.” Note the son’s belief that death reveals truth, which perhaps demonstrates that he and his father were not poles apart as the father likely thought.
The father, importantly, had been informed by his son of the pair’s difference in belief: “I said it’s your God I don’t believe in / No your Bible can’t be true.” This is not the story of a son who held it all in and kept his his true beliefs from his father. Also, I think it’s significant that the son is not dismissing God and the Bible per se, but merely his father’s distorted version of them. “Now he’s [the father] going to know he was wrong and that there is an only loving God,” says Tweedy, as opposed to the rather harsh, rule-obsessed God painted by the father during his earthly life.
There is, however, an important catch at the end of this song: the son realizes that even though his father was a harsh and critical man, he loves him and even misses him in a strange way: “Bless my mind, I miss / Being told how to live / What I learned without knowing / How much more I owe than I can give.” The son feels his father’s presence has gone, and with it went the father’s constant reprimands. When something ever-present suddenly vanishes, it is not hard for us to almost wish for its return, at least in retrospect: “I fell in love with the burden holding me down.” The son would not trade his new-found sense of freedom for anything, yet he does not look back with hatred upon his strained relationship with his father. Perhaps in time it will be something he looks back upon as a learning experience.
There is a poetic irony in the fact that the father passed away on a Sunday morning. It is the day of Christ’s resurrection, the day that continues to give hope and joy to many Christians. The message of Christ is a counter-message to that of the father, even though the father no doubt believed he was doing his duty as a Christian by expressing his concern for his son.
But of course the lyrics are always only part of the picture. Musically, the song feels to me like a sunbeam through a window on a quiet, warm Sunday morning. A simple melody repeats throughout the song, acting as its musical backbone and signifying the change from one verse to the next. But if you listen carefully, you’ll see that it’s not played the same twice. The band uses some creative instrumentation to keep this melody familiar yet fresh for twelve minutes. I think it’s very effective. Jeff Tweedy has said that he doesn’t want Wilco’s music to simply be the thing that does the “emotional heavy lifting” for the lyrics, and I think his philosophy is evident in this song. The music stands strongly on its own.
Have a listen on your Sunday morning, I hope you’ll enjoy this song as much as I do.