On “Cruel But Honest Fortune,” from Jay Bennett’s The Beloved Enemy (Undertow), the ex-Wilco multi-instrumentalist sounds like he’s headed for the edge. “There’s a cruel but honest fortune inside every misery,” he sings over a loose-stringed guitar. When reached at his studio in Chicago, however, Bennett laughs and swears the quiet, near-murder ballads that fill Enemy, his second solo album of 2004, aren’t really that out of character.
“I think it’s a sad record, and I wouldn’t say there’s resolution, either,” he says. “I didn’t put this out to say hello and then invent, investigate, experiment with this side of me. I’ve always done this kind of stuff. I’ve got tracks like these that have been around for 10 years.”
Bennett is often portrayed as Wilco’s shaggy dude with dreadlocks, a guy you suspected was always a bigger influence on records like Summerteeth than he was given credit for. Bennett admits he’s a “pop guy,” which only makes the stark nature of Enemy that much more surprising. Even the album’s best songs—the tender “My Little Valentine,” “If I Forget How To Land” (a duet with alt-country singer Michelle Anthony)—are bereft and brooding.
Don’t attribute the melancholy heard on Enemy to Bennett being unceremoniously booted from Wilco in 2001, however. As sordidly documented in the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Bennett (who, through selective editing, comes across as the bad guy) was anti-climactically fired for erratic behavior and various drug offenses. But he doesn’t want to rehash the film or his departure from the band, other than to assert that his new album isn’t about Wilco or Jeff Tweedy.
“No, that record would have been called The Fucking Enemy,” says Bennett with a hoarse laugh. “How do you tell someone you’ve moved on? I’ve moved on. I lost a wife and had two uncles and my grandmother die. Come on, compare that to a guy whose head was getting so big there was no longer room in the room. I didn’t have to go mining for subject matter on this one. On the list of pain I was feeling, not being in Wilco is so far down it’s ridiculous. It was an exorcism in a way, but I wasn’t the most depressed guy in the world when I was doing it. This gave me joy.”
Bennett’s two previous post-Wilco albums—2002’s The Palace At 4am (Part 1) (recorded with Edward Burch) and 2004’s more stripped-down Bigger Than Blue—at times feature a full band. The poignant Enemy, on the other hand, is nearly a one-man show, from Bennett’s opening exclamation (“Whoa, it’s cold”) to the unlikely closing cover of Tori Amos’ “Pretty Good Year.” Rather than labor over the project for months, dubbing and overdubbing a la Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Bennett cut Enemy by himself in one week.
Keeping up his pace of writing and recording, Bennett has already finished his next album, titled The Magnificent Defeat and due out soon. “It’s the Beatle-y side of pop,” he says. “Maybe it’s the fast version of Enemy. It’s over the top in a sloppy way. Contrary to my reputation as a studio-wiz dude, this is not a return to that. It has a weird kind of energy to it, elements of light and dark.”