Being There needs as much space as it takes up.
Originally released in 1996, Wilco’s Being Theredoesn’t comfortably fit into a standard narrative. Putting the album into the context of the band requires two divergent stories. The first, which probably has the most traction, sees the album as the turning point for the band and for Jeff Tweedy as a songwriter; this is when we watched the band shrug off its Uncle Tupelo alt-country and start to turn into experimental indie-rockers building to their best work. The second, which becomes truer the farther we get from the fuss around Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, sees the album as its own masterpiece, drawing strength from its array of genres and influences, its burst of ideas and its necessary sprawl.
Both stories may be right. The album has now been reissued with three bonus discs of outtakes, demos and live recordings, and benefits from a remastering that adds some separation. And it still feels like a coming-of-age moment. Frequently looking at what it means to be a musician or a fan or both at once, Tweedy’s lyrics mine professional history, personal life and surrealism all at once. “Misunderstood,” one of the group’s greatest songs, opens the album with noise and prettiness, cynicism and hidden longing, breaking down a careful artifice. Being There spins out of all these themes, blending moods and modes and resisting in its own creation a sort of decay.
Double albums tend to suffer from sprawl, saying as much with their garrulousness as with their actual content, but that’s part of the joy of listening to them, too. Being There needs as much space as it takes up, twisting through corners and expressing Tweedy’s deluge of reflection. Arguing that the best of the two discs would make a perfect single disc misses the point. A new breadth of awareness requires the folky numbers, the rockers, the experiments and the straightforward tunes. The band’s not finding something different; it’s expressing the newness it’s found, using both new and old approaches, and reading the album as a foreshadowing of the band’s subsequent progression misses the completeness of this statement.
That said, the disc of outtakes and demos reveal the ongoing process to get to that point. Written and released soon after the less developed A.M., this wasn’t the result of an epiphany. Across professional struggles and personal growth, Tweedy’s songs ran through various permutations as the band worked out what it was at this moment. The “dobro mix” of “I Got You” shows its country roots, revealing a track that could have been guided into an alt-country standard instead of the barely weird pop rocker that made it onto the album. “Dynamite My Soul” echoes Woody Guthrie (looking both back and forward in the band’s career). Wilco had a folk album waiting here, and these songs, whether polished or in sketch form, show the possibility of a band sticking to what it knew rather than digging into new sounds for saying new things.
The two discs of live music contain a concert from November 1996 followed by a four-song appearance on KCRW. The band sounds confident, often like an alt-country act turning into rockers. “Misunderstood” plays long and experimental but with a very different feel from what it would take on a few years later. “Passenger Side” gets not only its standard treatment but a “punk version,” a reminder that Tweedy’s musical base is as much in that scene as in country and folk. The steel guitar and the plaintive sounds of the show contrast starkly with both the mid-‘00s incarnation of the band and the current version with Nels Cline. Hearing Wilco live from 1996 doesn’t reveal a band working on a transition, but a group comfortable with blending sounds. That approach is a natural extension of the album, an expansive and inclusive standalone piece of art as well as a part of larger process.