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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2002/09/24
by Jesse Jarnow

BRAIN TUBA: I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

There’s been a lot of jizz spilled about Wilco’s Yankee Hotel
Foxtrot, so I feel a bit tentative adding to that already fairly gooey
pile of praise. As such, I will do so with a qualification: Yankee Hotel
Foxtrot is not the revolutionary album that many have made it out to be.
It is not the weirdly experimental LP that many have claimed it is. What it
is is a damn decent record of well-written, intelligently produced
songs. In the vacuum of major label music these days, that’s something
pretty bold. But, really, Wilco just did what any ol’ band should do: they
made a disc that’s artistic and creative.
There is, however, one song on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that I think
actually is experimental. "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" leads the
disc off and, I think, creates a false impression about the rest of the
album. It is a powerful keynote, and – in my mind – one of the great pop
songs of recent memory. It is a track that I do find deeply
experimental and, for that reason, new.
Structurally, the song has the outward trappings of fairly typical pop. It
begins with five verses, each ending with a Bob Dylan-like
repetition/variation question: "what was I thinking when [X occurred]?" The
verses build to the title refrain, which gives way to an altered reprise of
the first verse. That’s a fairly simple way to go about things. What makes
it special, though, is the way the specifics of the song are painted within
that framework.
"Electronic music exists only in a state of actualization," Thom Holmes
wrote. "Conventional musical notation is not practical for electronic
music." The same could be said for most rock and roll, which relies on
energy, improvisation, and other non-scorable devices. But it’s especially
true for "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart", which is filled with washes,
clanks, and buzzes. "Good Vibrations", which is another one of my favorite
pop songs, can be scored pretty easily. The sections build very
logically on each other in a way that Brian Wilson has described as a
"pocket symphony". It is precisely that structure that makes it cool and
interesting, calling on the bombastic formalities of classical music in the
way prog-rock usually failed at.
"I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" is an amazingly simple song — basically a
very earnestly strummed two or three chords. The arrangement beneath it is
stunningly articulate, though. The combination of instruments, peripheral
melodies, and rhythms shifts constantly, with a new composition of elements
for each succeeding verse. In fact, the only two constants through most of
the song are Jeff Tweedy’s vocals and a droning organ (the latter of which
subsequently disappears at key points).
In a sense, it is a kind of improvisation that allows them to explicate the
song emotionally. Instead of expanding the material linearly, through a jam
or just theme and variation, they build it spatially, by adding depth to it.
The former approach would expand the song time-wise. The latter approach
simply folds it over, as if there were more than one experience of time
embedded in the song’s layers. This is accomplished through the
instrumentation, and the myriad rhythmic/melodic motifs played by xylophones
and pianos.
The literally unsung star of the song (and the album), for me, is drummer
Glenn Kotche. Throughout the tune, he always sounds as if he’s about to
launch into a beat, never really does, and manages to maintain an almost
perfectly drunken state of anticipation via exquisitely timed fills. It is
Kotche, and not multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who is the secret weapon
of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. His drumming can only be described as
atmospheric, and that is an extremely rare thing. Offhand, I can’t
actually think of any other drummers who fit the bill in the same way.
Following the song’s noisy introduction, the guitar strum begins, as well as
rhythmic static. Bells announce the first entrance of the drums. A xylophone
and the first series of fills accompany the first verse. The guitar comes up
in the mix for the second verse, offering a glimpse of what the song might
be like if realized "normally". More drums, xylophone, and piano link to the
third verse. The drums and prepared piano are the stars of the third verse,
as well as more static. An idiosyncratic piano riff (coupled with xylophone)
brings the song into the fourth verse. Percussion that sounds as if it is
emulating backwards-masked guitars accompanies the fourth verse. Discordant
piano brings in the fifth and final verse, which is helped along by a fairly
normal drum pattern which builds to a total dropout.
This leads to the first of the song’s three "peaks" — or, rather, where the
peaks would go if the song were structured normally. Instead, everything
drops out except for piano and some random noise, while Tweedy delivers the
refrain. With a quick punch after the refrain, the full band comes in as if
they are going to charge through a traditional build to the song’s end.
Instead, they drop out into an even weirder ambient mix, on top of which
Tweedy recites a cracked alteration on the song’s first verse — the second
"peak". Under this, most of the voices that played parts in the song come
back in some form or another. Finally, a third "peak" — Tweedy singing "I’m
the man who loves you" over a positively devasted/mutated sounding guitar
strum. Something whistles, and the song is over.
Of course, it’s not any one of these things that makes the song effective,
but their combination. This is what makes the song so special to me. It is
the changing timbre of the instruments that allows the song to progress
emotionally over the course of its nearly seven minutes. That the song uses
this method, instead of a build in traditional tension or speed or whatever,
is why "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" is an epic of distended emotion.
Jesse Jarnow is not your typewriter

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