Community-driven media: Log in or Visit
0 |

The Meaning of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.”

Wilco press photo from 1996. Photo by Marina Chavez.

“Jesus, Etc.” is the gentlest, most accessible song on Wilco’s 2001 masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which many consider one of the best indie rock albums of all time. The album as a whole is beautiful, but it’s not exactly a comfortable listen, which is perhaps why it is so amazing. Jeff Tweedy has a knack for expressing existential feelings via song, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the pinnacle of that, taking us to hell and back as we contend with our emotions laid out on the table before us.

However, of all the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, “Jesus, Etc.” stands out as a welcoming beacon of hope amidst the varied phases of distortion and relief found elsewhere on the record. “Jesus, Etc.” is all sweet relief. One great, big, sigh of sweet relief that fits in with many a mood, from early morning coffee to late night contemplation.

The lyrics to “Jesus, Etc.” were written by Jeff Tweedy, with musical arrangement being a collaboration between Tweedy and Jay Bennett. Like many other Tweedy songs, the meaning is somewhat ambiguous.

Jeff Tweedy of Wilco live in 2013.

Opening with the memorable, “Jesus, don’t cry / You can rely on me honey / You can combine anything you want”, the mood is of reassurance to someone you love. However, what Jeff Tweedy means by “combine anything you want” is up to interpretation. This may be a reference to combining drugs, suggesting that the person that he’s with having a bad trip, or it could simply be referring to a combination of thought patterns that might lead to an uncomfortable place.

Then we reach the chorus, which provides a visual representation of the experience of the person being soothed by the lyrics:

Tall buildings shake
Voices escape singing sad sad songs
Tuned to chords strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around

Lyrics from Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.”

Here, Tweedy uses the unnerving image of a tall building shaking, with voices inside crying out in sorrow. “Tuned to chords strung down your cheeks” means that the person is crying, and the voices coming from the shaking building are in the same tune as those tears. This suggests the tall buildings are only shaking inside this person’s head, and that they need to recognize that it’s “bitter melodies”, a.k.a. the negative thought patterns that has caused the distress.

Wilco live in 2014. Photo by Joshua Mellin.

It gets more harrowing as the song progresses into the bridge:

Voices whine
Skyscrapers are scraping together
Your voice is smoking
Last cigarettes are all you can get
Turning your orbit around

More lyrics from Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.”

Tweedy suggests that the buildings have shaken enough to be touching now, and everything is really falling apart now, and the person has turned to smoking what feels like their “last cigarettes”.

“Our love is all we have,” Tweedy sings in the third verse, insisting that love is the one concrete thing we can hang onto when everything else falls apart, and the only thing that matters in the end. Finally, the lyric “Everyone is a burning sun” is Tweedy’s way of reminding us all that we will eventually die someday, and there ain’t nothin’ we can do about it.

While these lyrics do seem dark, you wouldn’t recognize that from the soothing musical arrangement, and especially the strings. This was Tweedy’s first string arrangement without outside input, and he set a goal to have the texture of the string vary with each movement in the song. This helps give way to the rise of emotion in the song, and the subtle string embellishments allow the song to maintain its peaceful demeanor (rather than doing this with an electric guitar, per say).

As for the song’s title, apparently it was originally meant to be called “Jesus Don’t Cry”, but Jay Bennett had written “Jesus, Etc.” on a demo tape that they had been working with. The band ended up liking the name “Jesus, Etc.” better and went with that instead.

Unintentional 9/11 Connection

One little known fact about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is that it was originally slated for release on September 11th, 2001, which also happens to be worst date in modern American history, and perhaps all of American history.

Wilco had signed a deal with Reprise Records going into this album, and the label had advanced them $85,000 to make the album. The band recorded it in late 2000 into early 2001, and when they sent the finished product to Reprise they were told that it couldn’t be released on the label because it lacked commercial appeal.

Rather than going back to the drawing board and coming up with a new record, one with more commercial appeal, Wilco stuck to their guns. They knew they had made a great record and so they decided to release it on their own, on September 18th, 2001 as a free download on their website.

Wilco were later signed to Nonesuch Records for the official release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which happened on April 23rd, 2002.

Perhaps it is best that the album was not released on 9/11, especially because of the image of two tall buildings on the cover and the song “Jesus, Etc.” making reference to skyscrapers losing their structural integrity. Still, some people found solace and comfort in Wilco’s music following the attacks, and many fans reached out to the band to let them know that the album had made an impact on them during a troubling time.

Speaking with Rolling Stone in 2002, Tweedy said:

There were a lot of eerie echoes of 9/11 that I heard onĀ Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, maybe because some of the focus on that record was being introspective about America. I understood how people could hear that in it. I’m obviously very, very honored if anybody found any kind of consolation in that record, at that time or now.

Jeff Tweedy, 2002

Listen to “Jesus, Etc.” by Wilco below.