Jeff Tweedy wishes his new book had been his first book. He writes that World Within a Song: Music That Changed My Life and Life That Changed My Music “is the one I probably would have written first if I were more ambitious, and if I had been a little more clear-eyed about what I care most for in this world.”
What he cares most for, he goes on, is not his own songs, of which he has penned hundreds through the years—with his band Wilco, and before that as co-frontman of Uncle Tupelo, and in the meantime with side projects like Tweedy, Loose Fur, as well as a solo music career. What’s most important to him, he declares in this book, is other people’s songs.
Starting with Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” about which he writes abashedly and self-deprecatingly as the song that “made the first dent” in his “musical mind” at a young age, Tweedy reflects on a grand total of 50 songs in World Within a Song. While the impact of each tune clearly varies, one thing is certain: a musician like Tweedy has an enviably attentive music-listening practice.
Throughout the book (out November 7 via Penguin Random House imprint Dutton), Tweedy describes the direct impact certain songs have had on his own songwriting practice, such as Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” which he notes as “the single most immediately welcoming recording” he’s ever heard. With other tunes, he reflects less on the songs themselves and more on the memories tied to them, such as The Staples Singers classic “I’ll Take You There.” Every Wilco superfan knows that this is Tweedy’s wife’s all-time favorite song, a song she loves so much that Tweedy bought her a 1957 Seeburg jukebox for her fiftieth birthday complete with the song’s 45. He even delivers his take on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” of which he is not particularly a fan. “Stevie Wonder is still alive,” Tweedy writes. “Let’s get him to write us a celestial anthem that glows in the dark.”
As a Wilco fan myself, I’m always eager to read Tweedy’s thoughts on music and life. Though at times, I do wish the man could be a little less humble. This book contains an overwhelming amount of bordering-on-apologetic language, dozens of statements like, “What is there to say about this song that hasn’t been said?” Tweedy has had an active music career for over 40 years. He should have opinions about music and not apologize for them, even if he’s in agreement with the masses about how great Bob Dylan is! This type of apologetic language make the page as much in his other two books: his 2018 memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. or his 2020 writing guide How to Write One Song: Loving the Things We Create and How They Love Us Back.
The structure of World Within a Song—a memoir written through a lifelong music-listening practice—is the book’s biggest strength. It’s clear that Tweedy enjoyed the process of reflecting in this manner.