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Wilco - "Jesus, etc." Meaning

Updated on February 26, 2010


"Jesus, etc" is one of the more straightforward songs from Wilco's landmark 2002 album "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," but its meaning has evolved since it was first written.

When first leaked, it sounded like a classic collaboration between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, with Tweedy's surreal and cynical musings on relationships enveloped by Bennett's layers of pop sound. "Foxtrot" as a whole returns again and again to honest portraits of the struggles of maintaining a relationship.

In "Jesus, etc," the song opens with a simple exhortation - "Don't cry; you can rely on me, honey." Simple enough, and it makes clear the subject matter. It is soon followed by Tweedy's beautiful but cynical lines, "You were right about the stars / Each one is a setting sun." The heavens open up, a breathtaking vista; and then immediately you're pulled back to the familiar. Why a "setting sun" rather than a rising one? The glass is half empty for our narrator, it appears.

As the album was released a year after 9/11, the chorus took on a meaning different than originally intended:

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

It's obvious why these lines would be associated with the World Trade Center attack, but they were actually written and recorded before it took place. Instead, the chorus is a metaphor for people crying, trembling, upset, and shaken. Their lives are driven by the "bitter melodies" causing this grief.

The same sentiment is expressed another way:

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

Once again, the buildings as people metaphor is employed, and a picture painted of the emotional turmoil taking place. Even the simple joy of smoking a cigarette is sullied by the (once again) cynical impression that each one feels like the last. The lives of the narrator and the individual he is addressing appear to them to be revolving around the negative events of their lives.

Does Tweedy leave us with this rather depressing view? Of course not. The bridge mixes in his trademark bittersweet hope along with the cynicism. The line "Our love is all we have" embodies both in just six words. It's certainly a cynical view of the world around them, yet it captures the most important thing they have - their love for each other.

He continues, "Our love is all of God's money / Everyone is a burning sun," effectively stripping God of his might while empowering us to recognize the value of our relationships while we can. And of course, the recognition of each star as a "burning sun" rather than setting shows he sees both sides of the coin too.

In a way, "Jesus, etc" feels like a lot of Tweedy's songs. He's not naïve about love or relationships, yet he's not without hope either. He knows firsthand both the effort required to maintain them and the intimacy and emotions they bring. Yet somehow, he manages to capture these ideas in a fresh way.

The full lyrics can be found at bemydemon.org.

"Jesus, etc" was written by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett and recorded by Wilco.

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    • profile image

      Ed 

      23 months ago

      You detailed my divorce in this exposition...

    • profile image

      Matthew Harris 

      5 years ago

      Okay, that was a terrible reading of the song's meaning. It's a song about forgiving someone for their inability to communicate. Let me break it down.

      Jesus, don't cry

      You can rely on me, honey

      Okay - so the narrator has upset someone - probably a lover given the term of endearment, 'and he's trying to console her...

      You can combine anything you want

      So the conflict was something to do with the way she combines things. But what? Eggs and flour?

      I'll be around

      More consolation.

      You were right about the stars

      Each one is a setting sun

      Okay what is this? It's a combination. A combination of words, otherwise known as a metaphor. It's her metaphor, her description of the stars, and she feels it's good. He doesn't - or at least didn't when she described them in this way (and you don't have to be Sherlock to deduce that a couple stargazing and describing the stars are probably having an amorous moment, and he's ruined it by questioning her combination of images). Anyway, he's also now conceding that the metaphor was good, even if only with tongue-in-cheek. Is it though? What is the sun? A star. Does it make any sense to say that the stars are a setting star. Not really. It's a shit metaphor. He knows it. She probably knows it now too - that's why she's become upset, and why he's having to assure her it's not a big deal. Ironically, he continues to describe the event of their disagreement using metaphors...

      Tall buildings shake

      Voices escape singing sad sad songs

      What's more, they're metaphors which aren't very good. This, I think is a metaphor for her crying: the shaking of her body, her whimpering tears. It's okay, but not great.

      tuned to chords

      Strung down your cheeks

      The songs of her whimpers are 'tuned to chords'. Any musician worth his salt knows you don't tune to chords. You tune to notes. It's the kind of imprecise and even incorrect, metaphor she might have used. Another linguistic blunder. And 'chords strung down your cheeks' doesn't add much - it's like he's trying to rescue a metaphor that's already broken down.

      Bitter melodies turning your orbit around

      Again, another bad metaphor. In what sense can a melody turn someone's orbit around? It might be fair to say that a song could turn someone's world around, but an orbit cannot be turned, an orbit is already turning around.

      So next up there's a big chunk of repetition - he repeats the first verse and chorus with minor variations, reaffirming that he doesn't care if she combines words and ideas badly - he's still on her side. Stars can be like stars, you can tune to chords, orbits can be turned, and what the hell...

      Voices whine

      Yes, voices can even whine. Okay, 'whine' means, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, 'a high pitched complaining cry'. So it makes little sense to say a voice can whine. A voice can't whine, but a person can, and she is.

      Skyscrapers are scraping together

      Skyscrapers scrape together? That's just dire.

      Your voice is smoking last cigarettes

      A voice can be smoky perhaps, but it can't 'smoke'. And it can't be 'smoking', unless the vocal chord has caught on fire.

      Our love is all of God's money.

      That's so bad it's good. And I think the deeper irony of the song is that it's quite beautiful despite, or rather, because its built on this heap of bad metaphors. Tweedy is a clever writer. He didn't use them for no reason. This song isn't about the twin towers falling as everyone I've read seems to think (never mind the song was recorded before 9/11) - it's about a guy telling his lover he doesn't care about her less-than-perfect use of language. Her sentiments are beautiful despite the imprecision of the way she's communicating. He'll be around regardless.

    • wilcowilliams12 profile image

      wilcowilliams12 

      8 years ago from Franklin Square, NY

      I love this song so much!

    • profile image

      holli 

      8 years ago

      awesome interpretation of this song

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