Being There

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

Published October 28, 1996 8:00PM (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 fill.

"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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