Oct 21, 2018

WILCO - Being There (Reprise Records 9 46236-2, 1996)

As far as I know, "Being There" was sold for the price of one CD, despite the package actually containing two discs; so much for any possible 'marketing ploy' accusations. The situation becomes ca-wazily more bizarre, though, when you realise that the overall length of both is exactly 77:33, which is, I think, quite an adequate amount of musico-minutes for an enhanced CD; also, considering that a few of these songs could have easily been chopped and sliced a wee bit, it wouldn't have been difficult to squeeze it all onto a regular length CD either. So what's the proper, logically consistent, Poirot-endorsed answer to this conundrum ? Why, just that Wilco wanted to have an official "double album" under their belt. Because, face it, a "double album", unlike, say, a double album proper with no quotation marks around it, is so much more than just a double album with no quotation marks around it. It's something that's supposed to be broad in scope, daring in ambitiousness, and justified in talent. Also, more often than not, it's supposed to be a wink-wink hint-hint at the good old days when "double albums" were so common, not just because they hadn't yet invented CD technologies, but also because there, like, was so much more to say uh-oh, Old Man Grumble headed this way. Not good. Change channels.

"Being There" is nearly a genius. It aims at much more than A.M., but not that much more. Jeff Tweedy was a pretty good songwriter - still is, but it's not like he's grown himself a new head to be responsible for two CDs worth of music. The arrangements are generally more complex and the production more intricate, but who fucking cares. However, to use Jeff's own words from the past, 'that's not the issue'. The issue is that Wilco, for all their potential - but only potential - mediocrity, have come out with an album that's consistently gee-ow-ow-dee from first track to last. And that's the most important thing about "double albums", quotation marks or not: just for how long can they hold our attention ? "Being There" holds mine for as long as it runs. Individually, very few of these songs hold up as self-sufficient masterpieces. A few of them do; a few more pretend to do; most don't even try. Nobody, I'm sure, will hear "Far Far Away" and go bonkers over how Jeff Tweedy does for country-rock basics the same thing that Michael Jackson did for underage kids. (I, of course, mean "making the world pay more attention to them" - what did you think ?). At best, they will hear it and say 'hey, isn't that cute how that guy does his little Jerry Garcia thing ?'. (And I do say at best because it took me a sleepless three weeks to figure out who those vocal stylistics on the 'might be shining on you tonight' line remind me of exactly). And then it's Radiohead all over again.

But the miracle of "Being There" is how, just by having nineteen non-ugly, non-suck, non-cheese, non-corn, non-non-catchy tunes assembled in one place, you end up with something so much more powerful than nineteen isolated entities. It's almost as if Jeff Tweedy split his soul into nineteen equal parts - nobody wants a 1/19th part of anybody's soul, you know. And in a way, I'd rather have a big whole consisting of nineteen partly-soulful entities than, say, nine fully-soulful entities meshed in with ten silly useless filler parts. Another part of the charm of "Being There" is its transitional character. The good transitional character, one that successfully merges the old with the new instead of neglecting the old while still not fully mastering the new. No, Tweedy does not move away from his alt-country-rock heritage; he expands upon that heritage by merging it with other influences, primarily guitar-based "power-pop" and lush piano-based "art-pop" or whatever other labels I've forgotten to mention. The resulting mixture of rock'n'roll, guitar pop and piano pop might spell "Big Star" to ye ol' time fans, and certainly Big Star are one of the primary influences here, along with a couple zillion others (Tweedy himself never forgets to mention how Being There was essentially a tribute to his Sixties/Seventies idols, but methinks he's being a bit humble about that). But the scope is inarguably grander than that. And that's another good thing about the album - not only does it have the balls to be big and ponderous, it isn't afraid to be big and ponderous, which, as Old Man Grumble keeps whispering in my ear, is a relatively rare thing today.

And I don't even know where to start with the individual songs, because, well, you know. Okay, let's dwell on this: Disc 1 has a song called "Outta Sight (Outta Mind)", which is later redone on disc 2 as "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)" (might be a hidden reference to Neil Young there). Same song, two versions; I've witnessed actual complaints about this (in the "make up your mind, choose one screw the other, cut down the length, help save plastic" vein - the usual stuff). But it's not like they put both of them on the album because they'd run out of material or something: the two arrangements are drastically different, in fact, I'd say, symbolically different. The first version is all brawny guitars, power chords, and big massive drums, like it could easily be an outtake from A.M.: that's the past. The second version, on the other hand, is all martial pianos, soaring vocal harmonies, and weird muffled proto-experimental percussion: that's the future. (Well, technically speaking, it's also the past, but not exactly Wilco's past - the nod to the Beach Boys is very clear. But it is Wilco's future). Besides, both versions rule, except I find the piano one a bit better.

The lyrics are also consistently clever - primitive and straightforward on tunes where the melody is supposed to take immediate precedence, but wittier and more evocative on the more "generic" material, most noticeably the simplistic country exercises like "Forget The Flowers" (hey, I know it's subjective and all, but aren't lines like "you're trying my patience, try pink carnations" awesome in terms of phonetic juggle-around ?). Also, what's up with the "cash will flow" line on something as proverbially innocent as "Someday Soon" ? See, there's something decidedly tricky about that Tweedy guy, and it happens in spots where you least expect it. But still, "trickiness" is not the primary feature I'd associate with Mr Songwriter. "Heartfelt beauty", maybe - sometimes - if you pardon the cliched cliches. The little buds of "Dash 7" broke through the floor and resulted in brushes of bitter, believable melancholy - "Red-Eyed And Blue", for instance, which clearly milks what looks like a three-note melody for maximum feeling, and it's exactly the kind of feeling you'd expect from a band like Tweedy's: frustration and depression when your musical and spiritual ideals come clashing with sordid reality - 'when we came here today/We all felt something true/Now I'm red-eyed and blue'. That said, it can't be that depressing if you end your song with such a lovable whistling reprise of the main vocal melody. By doing this, and cleverly combining moments of gloom with moments of relaxation throughout, Tweedy avoids falling into the trap of the "original mixed-up kid", making an album that deals with real problems in realistic ways rather than simply ripping apart his T-shirt and rolling around in the ashes.

And the most real of these problems is the problem of connection: connection between Tweedy and the audience, Tweedy and the industry bosses, Tweedy and his partner(s), whoever he/she/they might be. It can certainly be hard to connect, and this hardship is perfectly captured - no, not on "The Lonely One", much too predictable a choice, but on "Hotel Arizona", where the word "connection" is actually spoken and the conclusion is that 'that's just something I've gotta get used to" (with a delicious series of doo-doo-doos for background, too); but the song's miserable 'hello, can you hear ?.' pleas, echoed by feedback drawls resembling a long phone beep, and the violent musical tempest that occupies most of its second half - as if the poor hotel were receiving a genuine Keithmoonian treatment - somehow suggest that "getting used to it" might take a long, long time. The simple, technologically unadorned magic of the Unassuming Pop Tune is also perfectly captured on "Say You Miss Me"; wise guys may lambast the lyrics for being strictly dumb - 'baby say I'll miss you, just say you'll miss me too' - but the thing is, we all know Tweedy can do much better than that; he simply won't, because he's going for realism, and sometimes - way more often than not, in fact - there's nothing more real than saying "just say you'll miss me too". It's a perfect break-up song, much more so than, uh, I dunno, Blur's "No Distance Left To Run", just to pick an off-the-cuff example; and musically, the 'whoo-oo-hoo!'s alone are worth the price of admission.

Then there's the "assuming" stuff. Both discs begin with a six-minute-plus 'program statement' of sorts, which, again, will probably appeal more to people who sympathise with all the Tweedys in this world than to people who just wanna hear good pop music, but then I've been known to be wrong, too. The biggest one is "Sunken Treasure", with lyrics that are hard to decipher until they culminate in Jeff stating that 'Music is my saviour, And I was maimed by rock'n'roll, I was tamed by rock'n'roll, I got my name from rock'n'roll', even if the song itself is hardly rock'n'roll at all; it's a slow, meandering, strictly four-four folk-rock shuffle with a couple thunderous, but somewhat predictable crescendos along the way. I don't love the thing, but I certainly understand its presence - and not offended by it. "Misunderstood", though, the album opener, I really love a lot. Not just because of the scraping guitars and dissonant feedback in the intro (just one of the just several 'experimental' tidbits just innocently scattered all over the place just to give the whole thing an 'uncommercial' look - there's really nothing innovative or "wild" about "Being There"), but because of the same things I praised "Red-Eyed And Blue" for: maximum human emotion over minimum instrumental chords.

For all of the album's ambitions, non-ambitions, suffering, happiness, retroishness, and actualness, though, surprisingly little of this stuff really rocks. I count maybe "Monday", the first version of "Outta Sight", "Hotel Arizona" (although the bombastic crescendo that forms the song's main focus of attention isn't exactly "rock'n'roll", either), and the closing "Dreamer In My Dreams"; the latter is almost never mentioned as a highlight, possibly because its positioning at the end ain't exactly a listener-enticing way of handling things, but I like it when Wilco are doing barroom rock, and "Dreamer In My Dreams" is a perfect example of them doing it, what with the fiddle guy going absolutely insane by the time his last solo comes by and all. Besides, I urge you to check out the lyrics to that song - hands down the best on the entire record, even if you can hardly tell a word because of Jeff's intentionally spluttered delivery without consulting the printed version.

Concerning Tweedy's debts to his forefathers, I'm not gonna say much on that account - I've named some of the influences, and it doesn't take too long to figure out a couple dozen others. The important thing is that influences remain influences; this is not an exercise in "let's see how many of yesterday's giants I can imitate" technology, and, despite what Tweedy says himself, it's not even a real "tribute", because "tributes" are not supposed to include the personality of the one who actually pays that tribute, and "Being There" can't help being way too personal. Maybe Jeff would have liked to have it less personal, but he's not able. Yes, there are songs that read like patented genre exercises - the power-pop of 'I Got You' or the country-pop of "Someday Soon" - but they're so tightly tied in with Tweedy's soulful, meaningful material that the resulting emotions are simply more complex and delightful to revel in than they could have been otherwise.

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