Being There Turns 20
Behold the tipping point of Jeff Tweedy’s career.
It’s correct enough to divide the musician’s history into its Uncle Tupelo and Wilco phases: First he was the plucky sidekick in the band that birthed alt-country, then he headed up a group that exploded that genre’s possibilities before transcending it entirely. The borderline between eras is slightly out of whack, though, because Wilco’s debut, A.M., while catchy and brimming with life, feels more like an extension of Uncle Tupelo’s nü-traditionalist ethos. It’s a very strong record that was never going to make a hero out of anyone involved. That wouldn’t happen until the band’s sophomore release, a wildly ambitious double-LP that has proven at least as durable and influential as Uncle Tupelo’s seminal works. Wilco began in 1994, but the legend of Wilco started two years later.
Being There, which turns 20 years old tomorrow, finds Tweedy surging out of his comfort zone and discovering a whole new world of experience, like the Peter Sellers character in the movie of the same name. It still remains many people’s favorite Wilco album, and it’s easy to see why. The tracklist is bursting with classics, including many songs you may have forgotten due to lack of exposure in Wilco’s live sets these days — that “What’s The World Got In Store” / “Hotel Arizona” / “Say You Miss Me” stretch at the end of Disc 1, for instance. It’s a daring collection of music, but even as it blows the door open to Tweedy’s experimental future, it always stays rooted in rock-solid songwriting fundamentals. And despite its sprawling scope, Being There is too consistently engaging to test listeners’ patience like your average double album. It helps that all 19 songs could technically fit on one CD; Tweedy wanted it to be a double-disc and cut a deal with Reprise Records to sell the album at single-disc price with Tweedy accepting single-disc royalties.
Right from the start it’s clear this will be no regular alt-country album. “Misunderstood,” the first of many epic Wilco album openers, finds Tweedy converting his Paul Westerberg worship into something larger than life. Six-and-a-half minutes of lurching noise and strung-out balladry about an underachiever skulking around his hometown culminates in a thunderous kiss-off that remains the highlight of many Wilco concerts to this day: “I’d like to thank you all for nothing! I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all! I’d like to thank you all for nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!” It’s the sound of triumphantly disavowing your past, and it accomplishes its bridge-burning objective in rapturous fashion.
The second CD kicks off with “Sunken Treasure,” a twin of sorts for “Misunderstood.” It’s another lengthy post-midnight rumination merging simple acoustic strums with experimental skree, and like “Misunderstood,” it’s overflowing with memorable turns of phrase, from “I am so out of tune with you!” to “Music is my savior/ And I was maimed by rock ‘n’ roll.” These two tracks are twin towers as meaningful to Wilco’s legacy as the Chicago landmarks on the cover of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; they laid the groundwork for “Via Chicago” and “Ashes Of American Flags” and “Poor Places” and “At Least That’s What You Said” and so many other timeless Wilco songs. They created an entirely new lane for Tweedy, one that has yielded much of his finest work: drowsy, surreal, deconstructed anthems that somehow become bigger than life by undermining their own foundations. Those two songs alone would be enough to render this album a landmark.
Yet there’s so much more to Being There; the album didn’t just establish Wilco as alt-country experimentalists, it proved them to be one of the most multifaceted units in music, capable of making tired old sounds feel fresh and alive. Basically every kind of Wilco song you could want is available here, from uptempo pop-rock tracks to honky-tonk ramblers to tender, doe-eyed ballads to head-bob jam sessions, each of them delivered with artful flourishes that set Wilco apart from their peers. Understated country stunner “Far, Far Away” would have been nearly as striking a statement of purpose had it opened the album instead of “Misunderstood.” The rootin’-tootin’ “Someday Soon” is somehow also delightful chamber-pop worthy of Summerteeth. Hard-charging rocker “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” is so awesome that it doesn’t even feel excessive when the song reappears as a jaunty piano fantasia on Disc 2. And Tweedy may never have written a simpler, more beautiful song than “Red Eyed And Blue.” They pulled every trick out of their playbook and executed them all to near-perfection.
Much of the credit for that versatility goes to Jay Bennett, the multi-instrumentalist who joined the band during the recording of Being There and instantly became Tweedy’s finest musical foil. At exactly the time when Tweedy was surpassing his old Uncle Tupelo bandmate Jay Farrar in their battle for musical supremacy, he was settling in with a new creative rival, incidentally also named Jay. Eventually Tweedy and Bennett had their own falling out, with Tweedy dismissing Bennett upon the completion of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2001. The story got even sadder in 2009 when Bennett died awaiting a hip replacement he couldn’t afford, just weeks after suing Tweedy for breach of contract. But before their partnership turned poisonous, it pushed them to musical heights neither would have likely scaled alone, yielding the three finest albums in Wilco’s discography.
Being There began that streak. It was Wilco’s big leap, and two decades later it sounds as brilliant as ever. So let’s celebrate: What’s your favorite song on the album? Where does it rank within Wilco’s discography? Was I in your dreams? Do you miss me too? Head to the comments and sound off on someone else’s song from a long time ago.