Wilco - "Jesus, etc." Meaning
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:
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.