A quarter century later, Wilco’s second album resonates even brighter
Being There certainly didn’t suffer from the sophomore slump. Quite the contrary: it was an artistic triumph.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Uncle Tupelo burned hot for seven years. When the Belleville, Illinois outfit, forged between high school friends and punkish rockers Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar, and Mike Heidorn, split in the early ‘90s, they left behind an iconography that defined the alt-country space. No Depression left such an imprint, its impact still reverberates throughout various strains of folk and Americana music today.
Two years after their split, Tweedy got together with many of Uncle Tupelo’s frequent players, including John Stirratt (bass), Max Johnston (multi-instrumentalist), and Ken Coomer (drums), as well as album collaborator and guitarist Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets, to forge a new creative collaboration. Initially, Tweedy toyed with keeping the same band name but decided a new moniker was the way to go. With a fresh coat of paint, Wilco was born.
Where their 1995 debut LP, A.M., scattered with blistered indie/rock ferocity, melding with plenty of bluesy instruments beneath the surface, the follow-up, Being There, felt looser and more off-the-cuff ─ but it also served as a bridge between the past and present. Songs like “Misunderstood,” “Forget the Flowers,” and “What’s the World Got in Store,” the latter glued with a finger-plucked banjo line, were soaked all over with a country & western veneer. Then, such moments as “Hotel Arizona” and “Say You Miss Me” puffed with country’s deep-chested, brokenhearted yearning outfitted in glistening rock arrangements, whereas “Dreamer in My Dreams” and “Monday” took a heavy pass on groove-shifting bass and electric guitar, always with the intention of totally submerging the listener.
Tweedy took an overhead snapshot of genre, wildly cultivated from simple curiosities in Chicago’s War Zone studio, during initial recording in November 1995. Even upon release, in conversation with No Depression, the singer-songwriter admitted some of their experimentation “come off better than others,” he said, “but for the most part, it just felt like when you started taking elements away, the overall feel of it wasn’t as free. It just felt like it was trying to force it into one category or another, and it seemed more honest to just try and let it be what it is.”
Genre play works well against the album’s core themes of heartbreak and a working musician’s toils, as well. “I am so out of tune,” bemoans Tweedy, crusty instruments casting a stark, yet wholly visceral, glow with “Sunken Treasure.” Much later, “The Lonely 1” reads as a tearful ode to the weight of fame, firmly burrowing into tortured artistry and the desperation to escape into the crowd. “When you perform, it’s so intense,” Tweedy sings, scooping up loneliness like fistfuls of sand. “When the critics pan, I write in your defense.”
Perhaps today, there’s a much greater understanding and empathy for musicians, as they scrounge to make great art while navigating celebrity status. It’s a first world problem, to be sure, but Tweedy’s out-of-character demonstration, as he notes in that same No Depression piece, was vital to the record’s success. “Without being overly arty about the whole thing, I really did have a lot of ideas about how I wanted people to hear this collection of music. Along with wanting it to sound like, as a band, that we were playing through our record collection, I also really wanted there to be songs where I totally came out of character, completely straightforward, and said, ‘Look, this is all I know.’ Like in a movie – a comparison would be when somebody looks at the screen and comes out of character and says, ‘Don’t listen to me. I’ve really no idea what I’m talking about. Except that I really care a whole lot about what I’m doing.’ Right now, it’s a struggle for me to come to terms with people paying attention to me, on any level.”
Both a critical and commercial success (a No. 73 finish on the Billboard 200 is nothing to scoff at), Being There laid the foundation for more than Wilco’s career, leading to nine more studio records and globe-trotting tours, as it assisted in fermenting the Americana and alt-country scenes of the late ‘90s, alongside such quintessential releases as Lucinda Williams’ 1998 release, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
25 years later, the record has remained a shining beacon for countless singer-songwriters that have since arrived on the scene – and they owe an unequivocal debt.
VIDEO: Wilco “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”