Song 361: Uncle Tupelo, “Black Eye” (1992)

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Uncle Tupelo gets lots of well-deserved credit for fusing country music with punk and post-punk aesthetics. I get that, and I get why their debut, No Depression, was such a big deal when it came out. It was a game-changer, plain and simple, a real landmark in the timeline of rock and country music.

But my favorite Uncle Tupelo record will always be March 16-20, 1992, an album whose simplicity matches its title: this is the sound of a bunch of guys in a room for five days. The band sounded amazing when they were their bombastic, chaotic selves, but I love this side of Uncle Tueplo, the side that was interested in singing quiet songs about people and places. It’s that versatility that made the band so impressive.

“Black Eye” is not only my favorite Uncle Tupelo song, but one of my favorites by Jeff Tweedy. Though it certainly seems like it could be autobiographical, something about the song seems like a character sketch. Lines like “He had a black eye that he was proud of” and “He almost always forgot what he was gonna say” sound straight out of a Raymond Carver story, in the way their bluntness and directness somehow hint at endless meaning.

Peter Buck produced March 16-20, and though I can definitely hear his influence, it sounds like he was a pretty unobtrusive producer. He brought the subtlety that you can hear on R.E.M.’s best work, especially their acoustic songs, to a band whose subtlety was a secret weapon. He did what any producer should do: make an artist sound like themselves, only better.

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