All over the map

Mark Athitakis reviews the album "Being There" by Wilco.

Published October 28, 1996 5:32PM (EST)

Jeff Tweedy is a recovering thief. As a member of the esteemed Uncle
Tupelo, he stole from an array of folk and country goldminesLead
Belly, Woody Guthrie, the Carter Family, Roy Acuffand offered an
occasional nod to the postpunk with which he and co-conspirator Jay Farrar
grew up. Aligned with a growing "insurgent country" scene in the Midwest,
Uncle Tupelo were fiercely talented purists, but their purism was
crippling; taking more from the past than they gave back in the present,
they offered only a series of failed albums that sounded more like
symposiums than hootenannies.

As any good country song will tell you, a breakup will teach you a thing
or two about yourself; when Uncle Tupelo disbanded in 1994, Jeff Tweedy
learned to stop being Hank Williams and start being, well, Jeff Tweedy. In
Wilco, he no longer felt a need for an authenticity he couldn't muster, and
on the band's 1995 debut album "A.M.," he channelled those old traditions
into new perspectives on loss and heartbreak. On songs like "Box Full of
Letters" and "Should've Been in Love," Tweedy was reveling in ideas he
wouldn't touch in his old band. But being himself also meant confronting a
few personal demons. No longer willing to steal from the past, he now
seemed to call upon it desperately, seeking guidance.

"Being There" is where he widens his search. It's an ambitious
record: spanning two discs, 19 songs and about a dozen different styles, it
comes on like a roots-rock "London Calling," the work of a band that's
self-assured enough to experiment. It wanders from Stones-y rock to banjo
folk to New Orleans piano soul, but only rarely does it lose hold of its
captivating atmosphere of loss and fear. Tweedy sounds perpetually
in confession, and his five-piece band, fused and steady as a train of
boxcars, is always there to punctuate his anxiety, be it with an echoed
backing vocal, a bent guitar note, a copped Byrds riff or a poignant organ

"Misunderstood," which opens the album, compresses the
heartache to the point of near-implosion; Tweedy drags a chorus of
screeching violins, pounded keyboards and beaten guitars to a thunderous
crescendo, barking the line "I'd like to thank you all for nothing at all"
as if he were pointing fingers at everything in sight. The song is wound
so tightly, it's as if the rest of the album's there to recover from it.
"Sunken Treasure," which opens the second disc, tries a similar tack, but
with nowhere near the same impact. Still, the sense of plaintive
introspection is always there, accenting the ballads and speaking in hushed
tones, where "A.M." was noisy and exuberant.

Tweedy's style of storytelling is to obsess over details: ordering
flowers for the umpteenth time, stealing a kiss on a Chicago El train,
standing alone in a studio with "some songs we can't afford to play." On
"Somebody Else's Song," he half-whispers the line "I sound like what's
his-name, but you can't stop me" over a simple acoustic guitar line,
confessing his need to find salvation in song. And Max Johnston's lovely
banjo playing provides the appropriately earthy backdrop for "What's the
World Got in Store," where Tweedy watches a sleeping lover and sings,
"You've been trying hard not to think I'm a liar," in a voice that conveys
oceans of sympathy and guilt.

Though its finest moments are the most disconsolate ones, "Being There"
isn't always misery, loss and confusion. "Monday's" electrified blues-rock
proves Wilco can play great raveups, and the woozy organ throb of "Kingpin"
features some wonderful wordplay, with Tweedy fussing about catching the
flu and disjointedly rhyming "Dimetapp, spinal tap, city maps and
handclaps." And even if he claims on "Sunken Treasure" that he was "maimed
by rock 'n' roll," by the closing "Dreamer in My Dreams," it doesn't sound
as if he minds muchviolins wail and the acoustic guitars thrash
behind him with a sloppy, stumblebum sort of glee, and he's content to ride
on the crest of its wave. He sounds tempest-tossed and weary, but all the
wiser for having made the journey. A rock 'n' roll penitent, he now
preaches a strange and deeply personal sort of gospel, ready to accommodate
anyone who wants to come along for the bumpy and enlightening ride.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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