A funny thing happened to singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy on the way to cult stardom. As a member of Uncle Tupelo, a band of Midwestern small-town teens that initially took its cue from ’80s punk, he discovered Merle Haggard, the Louvin Brothers, Hank Williams Sr. and Gram Parsons, the patron saints of roots rock, country division. And with the zeal of a true disciple, Tweedy — together with Tupelo’s co-founder, singer/songwriter Jay Farrar — strived to create a musical language as earthy, honest and personal as that of his heroes. When Tweedy and Farrar split, in 1994, leaving Tupelo in ruins, they left behind four rustic-flavored albums and a rabid following that bowed to the boys from Belleville, Ill., and hailed them as visionaries.
Posthumously, Uncle Tupelo have acquired a mythic status that far out-strips their meager record sales. The title of the group’s first album, No Depression, has become the all-purpose moniker for a nationally prominent fanzine, a boisterously active Internet folder and a new school of country-minded rock bands, including Tweedy’s post-Tupelo outfit, Wilco, and Farrar’s band, Son Volt.
Wilco and Son Volt both put out debut discs last year, and the loyalists are still jousting over which group is the true keeper of the No Depression flame. But with Being There, the follow-up to Wilco’s 1995 release, A.M., Tweedy and his band break free from the confines of the narrow Tupelo legacy by exploring the nuances of noise and atmosphere.
The 19 tracks on Being There are spread across two CDs — a sound aesthetic decision. Each disc functions as a self-contained entity digestible in a single 40-minute sitting. Together, both halves aspire to the nervy sprawl of such double-album predecessors as London Calling and Exile on Main Street, records that forged unified personal statements out of a bewildering variety of styles. Being There is a product of ambitious versatility, particularly in the string-band textures conjured by multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston and the pliant rhythms of bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer. Wilco explore the clavinetfueled funk of the Band on “Kingpin” and crank up the Sun Sessions-style reverb on “Someday Soon.” The band also bounces like the Beatles in a dance hall on “Why Would You Wanna Live” and evokes an air of desert mystery in “Hotel Arizona.”
Wilco announce their ambitions in the opening bars of “Misunderstood” with a feedback-drenched assault that should clear the room of any Carter Family purists. The cacophony gives way to a plaintive acoustic dirge as Tweedy inserts a quote from “Amphetamine,” by the late Pere Ubu guitarist Peter Laughner: “Take the guitar player for a ride/See, he ain’t never been satisfied/He thinks he owes some kind of debt/Be years before he gets over it.” The lines are apt; Wilco identify strongly with Laughner’s tortured romanticism. In the next song, “Far Far Away,” Tweedy is on a bus, watching the prairie whir past as he drives away from a loved one. By “Monday,” Tweedy has forgotten all about home as his and Jay Bennett’s guitars blast against a braying brass section like the Stones invading Memphis. “I only wanna go where my wheels roll,” Tweedy yelps.
Wilco have not made your standard rock & roll road album. Tweedy’s songs use the one-nighter clichés of Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band” as a means of exploring deeper issues, particularly faith and commitment and how those qualities are tested by geographical and emotional distances. Being There is an album of parallel journeys that frequently overlap, a tour of the heart that becomes a search for renewal.
These journeys do not follow straight lines. Being There swings from the cocky-guitar raucousness of “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” on the first disc to the fatalistic acoustic strumming of “Someone Else’s Song” on the second CD. “Sunken Treasure” is a jazzy, Astral Weeks-style reverie that unravels into a dissonant eruption worthy of Sonic Youth. When Tweedy sings, “I am so outta tune with you,” he could be describing any of the relationships depicted in his songs — with a lover, a friend, even the music. The ambiguity is an attraction in itself.
On Being There‘s penultimate track, “The Lonely 1,” the perspective shifts from that of the self-absorbed rock singer in “Misunderstood” to that of a fan who lives vicariously through music. Fittingly, the album closes with “Dreamer in My Dreams,” a ramshackle rave-up that sounds straight out of Rod Stewart’s Gasoline Alley. In the song, Tweedy concedes that “All the good things/They gotta go,” but the band holds tight to the tune, pulling it back together each time the arrangement nears collapse.
Being There is named after the 1979 movie with Peter Sellers, and like Sellers’ memorable character, the gardener Chance, Jeff Tweedy and Wilco venture out into an anxiety-ridden world sure of only one thing. For Chance, it was the feeling of security he left behind in the garden. For Wilco, it is the solace they continue to find in rock & roll.