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'Blue Sky' after the storms

The Baltimore Sun

Put away your pity. Jeff Tweedy doesn't want it.

The lead singer of Wilco is certainly no stranger to suffering. An addiction to painkillers sent him into rehab three years ago. He was paralyzed by anxiety and panic disorder. His record label rejected an album that was close to his heart. His mother died last year.

None of it makes him special.

"The fact is that everybody suffers," Tweedy says. "Whether you're an artist or not, you're not going to get through this life unscathed. You're going to be touched by tragedy and a lot of things. And to suggest that artists feel that more deeply than you do, I find that to be preposterous."

His band's new album, Sky Blue Sky, is about getting on with life, about acceptance and emerging from the darkness to find a measure of happiness. It is about growing up and finding a reason to grow up. Tweedy has a family now and responsibilities, and his music reflects that.

"Having something that's more important than you is a really life-affirming and wonderful way to grow up," he says, calling from Atlanta, in the midst of a worldwide tour to promote the new record. Wilco will play Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia tomorrow.

That Tweedy, 39, has come to a place of peace and contentment is no small thing. His folk-rock band's last record, A Ghost Is Born, came out in 2004, shortly after he publicly acknowledged an addiction to painkillers and entered rehab. Tour dates were canceled. Of that album, Tweedy says, "I was just struggling to get things that sounded tolerable to me."

Wilco's previous record, 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, first rejected by the band's label but now widely considered a modern American masterpiece, was the product of a combative, angst-filled relationship between Tweedy and band mate Jay Bennett, who left the group while the album was being made. A documentary about the album showed Tweedy so upset that he vomited into a toilet in the recording studio.

The past two years have been the most stable in the band's 12-year history, with the six-member lineup holding firm, and the healthiest for Tweedy. He quit smoking two years ago, and he now runs 20 miles a week. His voice is clearer, and the recording process isn't interrupted by cigarette breaks every 15 minutes.

"I'm more present in my life," he says. "I'm happy and more of a lot of things are a lot less scary to me - good emotions and bad emotions, in general. I think that's the most important thing to get to, and maybe what the record is about: There are good feelings and bad feelings, and neither one is going to kill you or set you for the rest of your life on eternal bliss."

Tweedy's friends say he's comfortable being a regular guy. In Chicago, where the band is based, he can be found at restaurants and record stores, or out playing with his two young sons. People respect him and his privacy, but the city is intensely proud of Wilco and with that come enormous expectations.

Trying to maintain a normal life can be challenging, said Tim Tuten, a friend of Tweedy and co-owner of the Chicago club the Hideout. Tuten said he didn't know of Tweedy's painkiller addiction until the singer announced it.

"There was so much stress in his life," Tuten says. "People were like, 'When are you going to come out with a better album than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot?' He's trying to raise kids. He's married. He's trying to find a house to live in. He's trying to make the greatest record of all time.

"But now he's like, 'Hey, I've got a body of work, whatever.' He just seems more comfortable and happier now."

Documentary filmmaker Sam Jones followed Wilco as they recorded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and he says what he witnessed was not unhappiness but frustration. There was frustration in the arguments Tweedy was having with his longtime collaborator Bennett, but also the frustration when the finished record was submitted to Reprise Records and met with months of silence.

"It's hard when you make something that's really close to your heart and is really something special, and to have someone not get it all - that's the thing I saw," Jones says. "But in a way I think it empowered Jeff. I saw him really grow because he realized, maybe for the first time, that he didn't have to only use their [the label's] channels."

When Reprise refused to release the album, Wilco put it on its Web site and allowed fans to download it for free. The band has continued to have a generous policy about its own music, giving it away online without fear of commercial impact.

Tweedy can't understand why record companies have been so aggressive in taking action against people who share music online. He doesn't worry about the commercial side of the business.

"As long as I'm meeting my goals as an artist, then everything else is what it is and will take care of itself eventually," he says. "My artistic goal is to be heard, and I don't think you should spend any energy doing things to not be heard."

There's no question Sky Blue Sky is being heard. The album has sold 180,000 copies since its release last month, when it debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard album chart - Wilco's highest-ever ranking.

For filmmaker Jones, the album is about realizing you can't hold onto your childhood. "The lyrics are about someone who's understanding a little bit more about the whole cycle of life and responsibility and maturity.

"The songwriters that are really good, like Dylan and Neil Young and Jeff Tweedy, they find the same twisted mazes of conundrums on those issues as they did when they were 20 and trying to figure out love for the first time."

As Tweedy plays the songs nearly every night on tour, he says they remind him of lessons he's learned that he's trying to hold onto.

"The thing I keep getting out of most of these songs is a reminder that there's an ambiguity that's inherent in the way the world is, and tolerating that ambiguity is much more honest and probably more beneficial to you as a human being wanting to have an enjoyable life."

As he sings on the album's title track: "Oh, I didn't die/I should be satisfied/I survived/That's good enough for now."

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