20 Years Ago: Wilco Grow Up on Their Rangy Second Album, ‘Being There’
The result, in particular on the opening "Misunderstood," feels like a portrait of an artist in transition – stuck somewhere between the dreams of youth and the reality of grown-up responsibility. "Music is my savior, but I was lamed by rock 'n' roll," Tweedy later laments on "Sunken Treasure." "I was maimed by rock 'n' roll; I was tamed by rock 'n' roll."
But there was more going on here. Sure, Jeff Tweedy still had his feet in two musical worlds, as Being There blended in plenty of the country-folk that harkened back to Wilco's debut, as well as his earlier collaborations with Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo. But this double-disc release also arrived on Oct. 29, 1996, as Tweedy was getting accustomed to being a first-time father.
"I was kind of relieved when I found out my wife was pregnant," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. "I had something real to think about. One of the [meanings of the album title] is that I would love being there [at home] all the time."
Being There was impacted in ways large and small by this seismic shift for Tweedy.
"I'd come home every night, and instead of popping in a rough mix of what I did that day and sitting around and stewing about it, I didn't have any time to think about it," Tweedy told No Depression in 1996. "I was changing diapers and playing with my baby and totally excited about that being way more important all of a sudden. It felt like it really contributed to being a little bit freer about the whole process."
Those sessions, held at Chicago's War Zone, found Tweedy bouncing things off of Ken Coomer, John Stirratt, Jay Bennett and new slide/pedal steel-player Bob Egan – and then ultimately laying down tracks together in the same room. An initial eight-song cycle continued to grow, and grow. At one point, they had almost 30 songs – in a wildly divergent sweep of styles. There are even two versions (one rocking, one rootsy) of the same song, titled "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" and then "Outta Mind (Outta Sight)."
Listen to Wilco Perform 'Sunken Treasure'
"The idea was, for a while, to try and whittle it down to 14 or 15 songs. And then I just started feeling like I really had an idea of how I wanted the record to be, and I realized at the end that it made more sense to include everything and not really edit it – just let it be this kind of bulky conglomerate," Tweedy told No Depression. "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."
They were dashing away from the tone and texture of Tweedy's old band. In fact, the psych-country sounds that defined Being There – an album ultimately dedicated to Tweedy's new son, who he said changed him in ways that were "all good" – opened the door for growing sales and critical praise, then Grammys, sold-out shows and Top 10 albums. A quickly maturing Tweedy just needed to let go.
He started by keeping things spontaneous. "I think at some point, we could have stopped and gone back and maybe refined some of the songs," Tweedy told the Daily Press in 1999. "I think the overall vibe of Being There just started feeling – I don't know, it was just exciting to keep it as spontaneous as it was. We'd only allow ourselves to have a day to do a song. So, we just kept up with that until the last day of recording, instead of doing what you're supposed to do, go back and re-evaluate everything."
Tweedy's narrative approach – it was, by this point, far more personal, even confessional – sews these disparate styles together. Back then, he told No Depression that these were "songs where I totally came out of character, completely straightforward, and said, 'Look, this is all I know.'"
Thing is, that world had rapidly expanded, and with it came a rush of new sounds. Being There is the moment when Jeff Tweedy grew up, and Wilco started finding their own voice.
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