Wilco – Being There

Being There (1996)

A

1. Misunderstood 2. Far, Far Away 3. Monday 4. Outtasite (Outta Mind) 5. Forget The Flowers 6. Red-Eyed And Blue 7. I Got You (At The End Of The Century) 8. What’s The World Got In Store 9. Hotel Arizona 10. Say You Miss Me 11. Sunken Treasure 12. Someday Soon 13. Outta Mind (Outta Sight) 14. Someone Else’s Song 15. Kingpin 16. Was I In Your Dreams? 17. Why Would You Wanna Live? 18. The Lonely 1 19. Dreamer In My Dreams

 

This is a punk rock album. Sure, since much of the music it contains is based on certain touchstones of 60s and 70s classic rock, it may actually sound rather pre-punk rock to the untrained ear. But listen to “Misunderstood” and tell me that’s not a fucking punk rock song. It starts out with a primordial id drone, so even when it begins to list along gently with just acoustic guitar and piano, you can’t help but be aware of the seething rage boiling just beneath Tweedy’s quiet but pointed “fuck you” couplets. And that’s what this song is: a gigantic middle finger to people disdainfully left behind. Tweedy had Jay Farrar and the rest of the No Depression scene that had been fencing him in for six years in mind, but it can be universally applied. When it finally explodes at the end, as if Tweedy can no longer contain his sardonic anger, I can’t help but pump my fist along with it: “I’d like to thank you all for nothing/I’d like to thank you all for nothing at all.” I often daydreamed about performing this song at my high school graduation… I imagine it wouldn’t have gone over very well. Not to mention, it does all that with just two chords: a D and a G going back and forth for six and a half minutes. Johnny Ramone would be proud.

Tweedy knew he was going to piss a lot of people off by making this song and this album, so instead of sounding dull and plagiaristic like a lot of bands who try to copy their classic rock heroes, Being There is raw and irreverent. But most of all, it’s incredibly melodic, well-written, eclectic, and enthusiastically arranged and performed. It certainly contains the highest number of convincingly high-octane rock songs of any of their albums. Like the exuberant “Monday,” one of the rockingest Stonesy choogles ever choogled by someone other than the Stones themselves. Or the playfully Sonny and Cher-referencing “I Got You,” or the mad drone of “Hotel Arizona,” or the so-dumb-it’s-just-plain-catchy hopped up power pop of “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” which is far and away the band’s highest charting single ever (yup, for all the critical circle jerking they’ve enjoyed, Wilco has never been able to scrape its way above number 22 on the prestigious “Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks,” or even come anywhere remotely close since). The country element is still very much present, but it’s melodic and warm rather than austere. “Say You Miss Me” and “Forget The Flowers” are two of his best bittersweet love songs; in large part because instead of wallowing in obtuse self-pity like many of his later efforts, they just book along sweetly with catchy melodies and banjo pickin’ and in the process burrow their way into the comfy bed of your heartstrings.

I don’t mind that some of this stuff is referential to some of the band’s influences – in fact, that’s a critical part of the album’s theme. Many of these songs explore the artist-audience relationship cultivated through an artist’s music, and definine that relationship as a deeply personal one. This makes for some delightfully unabashed self-referencing. It may seem ballsy and self-centered to write a line like, “It’s only a quarter to three/Reflecting off of your CD/You’re staring at a picture of me,” or to sing about an encounter with–and even from the point of view of–a heartbrokenly star struck fan on “The Lonely 1,” but Tweedy is just cleverly calling attention to the fact that he’s communicating with you, the listener, through the very medium he’s singing about; the fact that you may be connecting with Wilco on a deeply emotional, illusorily but still legitimately personal level is no different from the way Tweedy connected with his musical heroes when he was growing up. That’s why he cops a verse from Pere Ubu in “Misunderstood,” and why he wrote “Someone Else’s Song” about, well, how he—and everybody—is inevitably going to remind you of those that came before him. I can’t confirm that he stole the melody from some old folk song, but I like to assume he did – wouldn’t that just drive the point home? It’s because of these elements that I can take Tweedy at his word on his famous decree in “Sunken Treasure”: “Music is my savior, and I was maimed by rock and roll/I was maimed by rock and roll/I was tamed by rock and roll/I got my name from rock and roll.” I feel that – and I wish I could say it with as much credibility as Jeff can. Maybe someday.

To those ends, I respect what they did here in the CD age with adhering to the old school double album format by splitting the album up into two CDs, even when, clocking in at a shade under 77 minutes, it could’ve actually fit on one. Anyone who’s been “tamed by rock and roll” knows that an album should be a conscientiously designed listening experience and not just a blob of songs that goes on forever with no reason or rhyme, which became common practice starting in the 90s. But it’s sequenced in a way that makes it seem as though disc 1 is “the main part” and disc 2 is “the remainder.” There are several brilliant songs on disc 2, of course – “Sunken Treasure,” “Someone Else’s Song,” “The Lonely 1,” and last but certainly not least the brilliantly unhinged closer “Dreamer In My Dreams,” which is sort of like the most ragged drunken living room jam you can imagine, but somehow good. I even like the goofy swamp rock pastiche “Kingpin.” But, for whatever reason, disc 2 doesn’t hang together as its own coherent, contained statement like disc 1 does, and it also includes a few pieces of blatant filler, not the least of which being the pointless acoustic second version of “Outtasite.” So I can’t give Being There the big A+ prize… but how many rock double albums are there that aren’t so weighted down by filler or other deficiencies that they can even come close to A-level status? I’ll save you the trouble of looking: the answer is, “not very many.” They just don’t come around too often. Being There is one of those albums.