Nothing in Jeff Tweedy's body of work prepares you for Being There, the ambitious and masterful second album by his band Wilco -- not the charming, self-effacing songs he brought to Uncle Tupelo, the now-defunct band he co-fronted with Jay Farrar; not the tossed-off nuggets he sprinkled on the pair of releases by the roots-rock supergroup Golden Smog; not even the graceful, off-handed beauty of Wilco's A.M., its superb debut album from last year. An endearing singer with a frail but winsome voice, Tweedy in Tupelo was the scruffy kid brother to the brooding, tormented Farrar, turning out modest loser laments laced with black humor that tempered his partner's bleak ruminations. Where Farrar would howl mournfully on a sweeping dirge like "Anodyne," Tweedy found solace in the country weepers of "Acuff-Rose," toasting the legendary honky-tonk song publishers over an exuberant bluegrass groove.
Set loose on his own in 1994 after Farrar pulled the plug on Tupelo to form Son Volt, Tweedy continued up his usual musical path. If A.M. broke little new ground, it was a bracing, unforgettable album just the same. "Casino Queen" hid a dark sociopolitical sentiment in a raucous Stones boogie stomp, "I Must Be High" and "Box Full of Letters" were models of effervescent Byrdsian pop, and "Should've Been in Love" essayed perfectly the way lovers feel when their candle has burned out for the last time. It was a compelling and magnetic record, the culmination of everything Tweedy brought to Uncle Tupelo.
Being There, though, is where Tweedy shows off. A sprawling, far-reaching compendium that spreads nineteen songs across two forty-minute discs, Being There is the latest in a long line of brilliant double albums ranging from Blonde on Blonde and Exile on Main Street to Something/Anything?, London Calling, and Sign 'O' the Times. Like A.M., Wilco's new one wears its influences proudly and without shame, and even better showcases the versatility of bassist John Stirratt, drummer Ken Coomer, and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston. This time, though, the influences run the broad gamut of rock and roll history -- the psychedelic country rock of Buffalo Springfield; the goofy pop bop of Lovin' Spoonful and the Turtles; the sloppy, barroom raunch of Crazy Horse and Faces; the deadlocked shimmy of the Band. Tweedy pulls these disparate fragments together with cunning and finesse, a calculated effort to shed his old skin and break from the pack of neo-country rockers who've sprouted like weeds along the blazed trail of Uncle Tupelo.
And who can blame him? The bands inspired by Tupelo's mix of hardscrabble rock, bleary-eyed country, and punk-rock pessimism -- the ones touted in the pages of No Depression, the hipster mag named after the first Tupelo album (which itself was named after the Carter Family song) -- rock and whine along the thin line that separates musical purism from arch conservatism. And too often, they tumble onto the wrong side. The burgeoning genre has produced some terrific records, including the Scud Mountain Boys' morose stoner epic Massachusetts and the Bottle Rockets' pair of powerful stompers. Few of the groups, however, have figured out where to take the country-rock hybrids of Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman, and John Fogerty. (Or, for that matter, Farrar and Tweedy.) As they fumble around with their noteworthy and admirable influences, they should remember that clinging to the verities of an era past without bettering them will only put you at an artistic dead-end. Yes, even when your verities are as good as Buffalo Springfield Again and the Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace of Sin.
Tweedy knows this well and he sings about it on "Someone Else's Song," a barren acoustic confessional in which "the chords are just the same" as a million other country songs and Tweedy admits he sounds like "what's his name." Despite the attestation, he doesn't, and throughout Being There he blows past his rural-rock peers like a semitrailer burning on melted-down Merle Haggard eight-tracks. Although the album jumps wantonly from style to style -- the guitar-blazing hellfire of "I Got You (At the End of the Century)" giving way to the banjo bounce of "What's the World Got in Store" -- Being There is built around a recurring theme: namely, Tweedy's obsession with rock and roll, its redemptive powers, its ability to heal, confuse, and disappoint (something he touched on back in 1994 on "We've Been Had," from Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne swan song). And because the guy is a hopeless and reckless romantic, the record is also suffused with the despair and ache of watching relationships disintegrate.
On the set-opening "Misunderstood," Tweedy extracts a verse from "Amphetamine," a self-flagellating lament by the late Peter Laughner, a founding member of Pere Ubu and a casualty of rock-and-roll excess. Laughner loved the music deeply, in his heart and bones, but his passion couldn't eradicate his massive self-loathing and insecurity, and he drank and drugged himself into a grave at age 24. Tweedy picks at the confusion in Laughner's saga but comes up with mere fragments of explanation, concluding only that, in the end, "You still love rock and roll," no matter what it's done to you, what it's made you become. In "Monday," Tweedy follows a guy named Charlie, a journeyman musician in Florida who dicked off in school and squandered his life in search of the rock-and-roll dream, winding up with only a no-draw bar band and a broken-down van, wondering what the hell happened to the dream.
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Tweedy digs deep into Charlie's confusion, from the perspective of a guy's who's living the dream ("Hotel Arizona") and a guy who's observing it ("The Lonely 1"). The former offers a melancholic snapshot of the rock-and-roll road Charlie wishes he was on, while the latter (a sort of country version of the Velvet Underground's "New Age") traces a night in the life of a rock-obsessed fan -- lonely, despondent, but consumed by the music.
Tweedy brings that same kind of desperation to everything here -- the yearning lover's plea affixed to the drunken wobble of "Kingpin"; the red-eyed and stumbling "(Was I) In Your Dreams," which sounds like an outtake from Neil Young's Tonight's the Night; the woeful but hopeful pining of the hangdog protagonist in "What's the World Got in Store" and "Say You Miss Me." Two songs, though, best define the album's theme: "Sunken Treasure" and "Dreamer in My Dreams," which respectively open and close the second disc. The latter is a relentless, loose-limbed stomper, a piece of roaring folky rock that pays homage to similar stuff knocked off by Rod Stewart back in the Seventies, when he still gave a damn. From the fatalist cry in Tweedy's lyrics ("There's a dreamer in my dreams/Swinging from the beams") to Max Johnston's tireless pulls across the fiddle, the song rages with a kind of force that embodies Tweedy's rock-and-roll passion even as he's tying the belt around his neck.
"Sunken Treasure" makes explicit the concept that holds the set together. The song is taken slow, introduced by the mournful drone of an acoustic guitar that's soon thumped into gear by the rhythm section. Amid the lush soundscape, Tweedy squares off with his own failures ("If I had a boat/You know I'd probably roll it over"), simultaneously stripping the glamour from his rock and roll life and avowing his faith in the music, whatever the costs and despite his nagging skepticism in the value of that faith. After a near symphonic blast of apocalyptic feedback, Tweedy emerges from the chaos cautiously optimistic: "Music is my savior," he confesses, then admits he's been "maimed," "tamed," then "named by rock and roll." It has shaped his identity, made him who he is, for better or worse. Sentiments like Tweedy's are hardly new: People have been toasting the power of the music for years, in a wide range of anthems that includes Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music," the Showmen's "It Will Stand," and the Velvets' "Rock and Roll." Still, when the words ring with the clarity and conviction Tweedy brings to "Sunken Treasure," you can't hear them too often.