On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of its release
Shortly after its release in October 1996, a cringe-tastic review of Wilco’s sophomore album appeared in my high school newspaper, written by yours truly. It featured the oh-so-brilliant dunk that Jeff Tweedy sounds out of tune when he sings, “I am so out of tune … with you.” Ha! Gotcha, Jeff!
Somehow Tweedy recovered from the burn, and somehow Being There started to grow on me by the time the discs were due back at the library. (You see, kids, back then you could check CDs out from your local library.) I think I checked it out a second time. Then bought a copy. Then started holding people hostage and forcing them to listen to tracks. My father. College roommates. Strangers who pulled up next to me at the stoplight. “It’s like country meets punk!” I would manically tell them before hitting play.
Never mind that it’s more experimental psychedelic noise-rock than punk. And Wilco was far from the first to mash up Americana with something harder. Being There still feels monumental 25 years later. If I were trying to explain the concept of alt-country to a newbie, I’d probably still pull out “Someday Soon” or “Dreamer in my Dreams.” It also announced the arrival of Wilco: The Band That Jams and Takes Risks. Risks like recording a double album, opening it with a 45-second drums-and-feedback freakout, and then spending the next 76 minutes alternating between ennui-filled ballads and surreal-nonsense-filled bangers.
I’ve spent so much time with this album, I’ve achieved a level of intimacy with it like few others. There are little moments that feel so, so familiar, like in the way that you get to know the contours of a lover’s ear. Well, this just got weird. Anyway, here are 25 of my favorite such moments, presented in the order they appear on the album.
- When the feedback creeps back in (for a second time), this time more menacingly, at the 3-minute mark in “Misunderstood.”
- “Kiss and ride on the CTA.”
- Them horns on “Monday.”
- Everything about the guitar tone on “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”
- The way that the country slide guitar on “Forget the Flowers” a) ever-so-tentatively creeps in at the end of the first measure and b) sounds like a dang “Dukes of Hazzard” outtake.
- Whistling solo! Eat your heart out, Andrew Bird!
- How the final piano chords on “Red-Eyed and Blue” mimic the opening riff on “I Got You (At the End of the Century).” When I saw Wilco live in Detroit in 2007, the band came out for a second encore and played “Red-Eyed and Blue.” And as that final riff rang out, the audience couldn’t stand it. “Do it!” they yelled. “DOOOO IT!!!!” I don’t know if the band planned on following it with “I Got You.” For a brief moment it seemed like they hadn’t. But by God what catharsis when they did.
- Doing a fake-out ending, then bringing the band back in just to vaguely reference “I Got You, Babe.”
- That’s a hell of a banjo part on “What’s the World Got in Store?” Listen to it. So suspension. Very resolution.
- The ascending chord progression in “Hotel Arizona.” As a songwriter, I somehow always default to descending progressions. They’re easy, and often beautiful. Listening to “Hotel Arizona” makes me want to try going up the scale for a change.
- Hold up, is that a damn harpsichord?
- Woo-oo-hoo! This could easily have been an album closer. They coulda had a nice little 10-track album, and it would have been great. But there’s a second disc, y’all.
- “I was maimed by rock ‘n’ roll, I was tamed by rock ‘n’ roll”
- The backing vocals on “Someday Soon,” floating out there way back in the mix, all spectral like.
- Taking the second single from the first disc, reworking it with a Sesame Street intro, switching the two parts of the title around, and just sticking it on disc two rather than saving it for the bonus material on a 25th anniversary reissue.
- The subtle accordion and mandolin on “Someone Else’s Song,” the type that comes wafting down a darkened cobblestone street late at night, making you wonder where it’s coming from.
- The ridiculous juxtaposition of “Kingpin’s” sliding dobro and bouncing clavinet-esque keyboards.
- “Shhhhhhhhhh … was I?” at the end of “Was I in Your Dreams?”
- BANJO TRIPLETS
- The sudden, subtle shift from “Why would you want to live in this world” to “Why wouldn’t you want to live in this world.”
- For a brief moment at the beginning of “The Lonely 1,” before Tweedy’s acoustic guitar comes back in, the layered, hazy violin sounds like a dang 1930s Hollywood score.
- “I play your song just to hear you say that you, you’re the lonely one.”
- Every single fiddle fill on “Dreamer in my Dreams.”
- Tweedy’s hacking cough.
- It’s clear that the closing track is improvised and the band is never quite sure if the song is really ending, and then some asshole decides to sucker everybody into another go-round. Tweedy, it turns out, was late to go relieve his wife, who’d been watching their infant son; so when he announces, “I’m leaving,” he’s seriously trying to get up and walk out of the studio. Then Jay Bennett plunks out a few choice keys on the piano to turn the song into a slow shuffle, and Tweedy reluctantly starts singing again. And then, finally: “That’s it!” SLAM!