Wilcoast to Coast: Being There

It’s been a goal of mine to partake in pun-ridden analysis of a band’s discography. I settled on Wilco, because as a guy from the Chicago suburbs with an appreciation for indie rock, I’ve absorbed their oeuvre through osmosis and mysteriously own every album in their discography.

My friend, James “Jimi” Williams, is an avid Wilco fan and my collaborator in this process. His opinions about Wilco are as informed as mine are ornery.

In our second conversation about Wilco (Wilconversation?) we tackled their sprawling second album.

Ben: After the A.M. was met with a commercial shrug and critical golf clap, it was back to the drawing board for Jeff Tweedy and company.

Tweedy’s personal life was stressful. He added his first son to his family and was dealing with the financial strain of fronting a not particularly successful band.

To make up for the departure of Brian Hennema, Jay Bennett, the only member of Wilco capable of playing a keyboard at the time, joined the fray.

With a new commitment to pushing boundaries and varying their sound Wilco hit the studio and came up with 19 songs.

This creative outpouring was too much for one disc to hold, so Being Therebecame a double album by necessity.

Tweedy fretted the price point of a double album would prohibit sales, and successfully talked Warner Brothers into selling Being Therefor the price of a single album.

While Wilco’s sophomore effort received a warmer critical and commercial reception than A.M., this ended up being a costly move for Warner, and it definitely fueled what would become a disastrous relationship between band and label.

I believe that adequately explains the context surrounding this pretty good album, please let me know about any essential oversights!

As the backhanded compliment pretty good probably gave away, I like Being There. The innate Wilco likability is in full effect, but this album is hardly beyond reproach. For example: I absolutely think there is only one disc of essential material on Being There, and despite a supposed commitment to experimentation, sitting through Being There‘s duration can throw me into a malaise of sameness.

I’ll be elaborating more on those points, but–if memory serves–I think you might like this album a good bit more than I do, so I’m interested in your primary take impressions?

Jimi: First, a couple clarifications. The album was titled Being Thereas a reference to the 1979 Peter Sellers film, which makes sense. The album deals with personal issues through observations of different characters, something Sellers’ Chance the Gardener would have appreciated. Also, the album could have fit onto a single disc. The double album scheme works in my mind as a deliberate separation. The first disc contains more of the album’s pop songs, while the second disc has more of the experimental works. Obviously, there’s some overlap, but I believe this is what Wilco was going for.

Your charge that I like this album a lot more than you do is dead on. As I mentioned in our last entry, the Radiohead comparisons irk me, but their careers do seem to mirror each other in eerie ways. After a critically maligned first album, their second albums took a great leap forward creatively. For Radiohead, that meant going anthemic. For Wilco, this meant retreading their first album, but with some more personality. Like the bluegrass of “That’s Not the Issue?” Here, have a “Forget the Flowers.” The hard rock of “Casino Queen” more your speed? Luckily, “Monday” is essentially the Stones if the album was actually called Exile On State St.

For me, the album’s main pleasures come from the idea that this band is finally discovering who they are: a sweet, country-inflected,  lightly experimental pop group. Some credit for this has to go to Bennett, who’s portrayed in the excellent documentary “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” as a perfectionist to the extreme. Bennett helped out on A.M. (he was given a “Very Special Thanks” in the liner notes), but here the former Titanic Love Affair guitarist (note the Billy Bragg reference, it becomes important later) helps guide Tweedy towards a more experimental sound. This isn’t to say this is Bennett’s album; rather, this album has the hallmarks of Bennett-era Wilco.

Regarding Being There, do you think the differences in our listening formats (I.e. MP3s for you, CDs for me) affects our experiences? Or, to put it more usefully, does the act of changing a CD player make my listening experience different from, say, listening to the entire album in one sitting? What moments of the album drag for you? Do you detect some influences that weren’t present on A.M.?

Ben: Thank you for the clarification, I knew about the Sellers’ film, but I just assumed they couldn’t fit this entire album onto one disc, because I’ve always found Disc 2 very slight.

Being There‘s slightly longer than 77-minute running time surpasses its predecessor by 30 minutes, which in my opinion is just a little bit too much early Wilco in such a confined space. For me, the  last three songs of the first disc and the first two songs of the second disc are kind of a slog. Aside from the disintegration and noise of “Sunken Treasure”, or physically changing a C.D., there isn’t much variance or respite from the gentle, rocking twang.

That particular stretch of the album is the aural equivalent of driving through the cornfield-ridden Midwest.

I know, so far, I have to be coming off as harsh on Being There, but I do actually enjoy this album a lot, it just feels like all the ingredients are present for a fantastic album, and instead of being walloped by greatness, I have to parse through a sprawling, soupy concoction for highlights.

Despite my complaints about sameness, I’m actually completely on board with “Outta Sight(Outta Mind)” and “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)”, and actually wish they were on the same album a la “Out of the Blue(And into the Black)”.

Obviously, there’s only one format suitable for enjoying “Red-Eyed and Blue” and that is through the use of solid state technology.

Joking aside, I think format does have a close tie to music, and I specifically have Disc 1 and Disc 2 separated on my iPod, for the sake of experiencing the album as intended.

I definitely detect influences that weren’t present on A.M. The opening track on Being Thereis different from anything Wilco, Uncle Tupelo or Son Volt had recorded and provides a convenient bookmark for Wilco’s progress toward its creative peak.

Unfortunately, that experimental progress yields to a lot of backsliding. You’re right that “Monday” is a ramped up “Casino Queen”, but I would never say that as a compliment to a song. It’s Wilco’s corniest impulses distilled into a 3-and-a-half minute blast.

Of course, I love the warbling confessional weirdness of “Red-Eyed and Blue” (arguably my second favorite Wilco song), so maybe I’m just diametrically opposed to some of these efforts by default.

I suppose “enjoyable but frustrating” would summarize my feelings for Being Therepretty neatly. There’s a lot to like, there’s signs of growth, but there’s also vast expanses of filler and stagnation.

I was excited to discuss this album, because I want to know why I have it all wrong. Sell me on the merits of Being There‘s heft, and give me your Wilco progress report, how close are they at this point to being great? Favorite songs on the album, and which songs would you consider for a greatest hits comp?

(Side joke: We are following this up with Long Division: A Joy Division analysis, Masturbatory Criticism: our opinions on The Strokes, and Hmm Hmm Hmm, where we consider the works of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, right?)

Jimi: It has always been my dream that an internet search for me would turn up “masturbation.”

I would say, at this point, Wilco, if they haven’t achieved greatest, are at least approaching it at a rapid pace. Honestly, so much thought was put into this album that I don’t know where to begin. I guess it would be easiest to start at the beginning. “Misunderstood” is perhaps the first all-time classic Wilco song, but it’s also so much more than that. It’s Tweedy examining the divide between a musician and his fans from the point of view of a fan at a concert. What’s poignant about it is that it provides a counterpoint to the usual rock star, nobody-understands-me bathos by having the fan be spot on in their assessment of the musician.  At the same time, it’s a kiss-off to Farrar, throwing some of Farrar’s favorite insults about Tweedy back in his face (in particular, the line “You know you’re just a mama’s boy/Positively unemployed” were apparently used by Farrar very often). Musically, it’s a giant leap forward as well: Wilco would reuse the structure (specifically the noise-rock beginning, caused by the band members playing unfamiliar instruments) on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” What I’m getting at here is that there’s a reason the band’s website lists it as their most popular songs.

For the longest time, I would have agreed with you that “Sunken Treasure” is a weak moment on the album. But around the fifth or sixth spin of this album, I had a revelation: it’s a companion piece to “Misunderstood.” Whereas the earlier song stated “You still like rock & roll,” “Sunken Treasure” deepens that relationship, adds weight to the idea that “my life was saved by rock & roll.” As you can tell from the change from second-person to first-person, the song flips the narrator from fan to singer.

The country songs on the album also hit me harder. Your stated stretch of five songs actually contains 2 of the best country songs on the album: “What’s the World Got In Store” and “Someday Soon.” This is entirely a personal choice argument, but when Wilco does country here, it feels less like the band is playing dress-up than it did on A.M.

I could go on and on about my favorite moments on the album: the southern-fried funk of “Kingpin,” the mournful ballad “The Lonely 1” (a sort of prequel to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s “Heavy Metal Drummer”), the boozy sing-along of “(Was I) In Your Dreams,” and the perfect power pop of “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” and “Outta Mind (Outta Sight).” Special attention must be paid to one song though: album closer “Dreamer In My Dreams.” It’s perhaps Wilco’s best closer, and one of their best songs, period. Sounding like the Rolling Stones’ “Country Honk” getting into a bar fight with the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” it’s one of the most fun songs in Wilco’s oeuvre. The band clearly had a blast recording it, and the sound Jeff Tweedy shredding his vocal chords gives a great impression of the album as a whole: this is a band leaving everything on the field.

I will admit to two songs on the album that strike me as filler: “Hotel Arizona” and “Someone Else’s Song.” But overall, these two tracks are more than outweighed by the ambition and intelligence on display. As far as songs that would qualify for my top 20, I would put “Dreamer In My Dreams,” “Misunderstood,” and probably “The Lonely 1.”

Which songs qualify for your 20? Have I shifted your opinion at all?

Ben: I can certainly appreciate the lofty mark, even if it falls a little short. I think Wilco finds their sound, assuredness and achieve greatness on their next record.

I absolutely agree “Misunderstood” is an excellent song. Wilco has almost never faltered where Side one, track ones are concerned.I agree the country efforts feel more lived in, but their also less lively for the most part.

Again, I know I didn’t throw a ton of positives its way, but I think Being There is a very solid album, it just also happens to be an album made by a band still finding its footing.

I would take “Misuderstood”, “Red-Eyed and Blue” and “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)” for my 20 song collective.

Comparing this to the three-album peak around the corner, I’m still left a little cold.

There’s a sort of derogatory sports term for the type of player who makes a handful of all-star games, earns fan favorite status, but just isn’t an all-time great–hall of very good.

I think Being There belongs in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Very Good,

I feel like I’ve more or less talked myself into a full circle. Any closing sentiments for Being There?

Jimi: In all, I think Being Thereis Wilco’s third or fourth best album. It’s not their peak, and they certainly benefited from experience, but for the most part, the essential components of Wilco are there. It legitimized a band that had been written off initially as being far out of their league. This was the beginning of Wilco’s golden age, even if it wasn’t apparent yet. They would start to jettison their country sound and add stranger elements. In a sense, Being There is also the end of Wilco’s first stage. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to discuss their next album. The amount of growth across the first four albums is awe-inspiring.

Editor’s Note: 2,000 words and only one Beatles comparison. Progress!

Author: Ben Hohenstatt

I was born April 7, 1992. I'm a reporter in Alaska, and an alum of Auburn University. I am an avid fan of music, Chicago sports teams and pop culture in general.

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