Based on the band’s humble beginnings, you wouldn’t have bet any significant sums on Wilco being responsible for a masterpiece such as Being There.
This widescreen Americana landmark from 1996 has now been expanded into a mammoth 5-CD box set with largely inessential studio outtakes and a superbly spirited live show from 1996, as well as some equally strong, stripped-down radio session tracks from around the album’s original release.
Following the messy 1994 demise of alt. country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy speedily regrouped with a new band. If the general perception of Uncle Tupelo's pecking order perched guitarist-singer Jay Farrar above Tweedy, their initial musical adventures following the influential cult trio's split suggested that such estimations were accurate. Farrar's Son Volt gained plenty of acclaim and even some commercial traction with their debut Trace whereas Wilco's competent but distinctly unremarkable first album A.M. (also reissued with extras) elicited sparse notices, few of them exceedingly enthusiastic.
Listening to Wilco's first two albums now, it's hard to grasp how the same band and songwriter churning out serviceable but undistinguished, bleary-eyed country-rock brawls on 1995's A.M. could possibly have located the inspiration, vision and drive to dream up a consistently compelling double album only one short year later. Being There frequently draws from the same roots-y well as Wilco's debut, but everything's bigger, better and bolder: compare, say, the easygoing chug of A.M.'s "Casino Queen" to the similarly upbeat and straight-ahead "Monday" off Being There: the former dreams of mustering a passing resemblance to The Rolling Stones, whereas the manic, hook-laden energy of the latter wouldn't be booted off Exile on Main Street.
Energetic, versatile and perfectly in tune with each individual song's requirements, the band are barely recognisable as the fun but one-note country-rockers of 1995: Wilco manage to make even the throwaway bar-room funk of "Kingpin" - the obligatory lightweight filler on a double album - seem kind of essential to the proceedings. Throughout, Tweedy sings like his life depended on it (and maybe his musician-ly life really did hang in the balance back in 1996): the way he pumps the maximum load of warily hopeful emotion into the weary sigh ''deep in my heart/I know it's right'' as a pedal steel wails its tear-stained siren call on the impossibly beautiful "Far, Far Away" alone is worth the price of entry to this overflowing array of riches. This is a song and performance that doesn't just dream of growing up to become a classic country ballad: it IS a classic country ballad. Rather than merely drawing inspirations from classics of American roots and rock 'n' roll music and providing pale facsimiles of past masters, on Being There Wilco managed to craft a record that deserves to be ranked alongside the hallowed works it's referencing.
Much of this dramatic transformation - imagine a stark monochrome film suddenly switching into blazing multicolour splendour - must be down to the inspired concept Tweedy came up with for the album. Although it's hardly confined by any sort of an overriding narrative arc, Being There is an album about both being in a band and being sufficiently moved by bands that have passed through here before to place your bets on as shaky a profession as being a musician. We're not dealing with the dreaded sub-genre of musicians complaining about the hotel breakfast buffet not featuring enough cold cuts and other miseries of life on the road, however. From a fan's pledge of allegiance to a star in decline (the sublime "The Lonely 1", surely the most heartbreaking song ever penned about the transformative potential of going to a gig) to a glimpse of a band sensing an improvement in their compromised circumstances (the turbulent "Hotel Arizona"), the eventual comedown ("Red-Eyed and Blue") and the loneliness that comes with months spent away from home (the simultaneously sorrowful and upbeat "Say You Miss Me"), Being There charts various points in the journey from being obsessed with music to jumping in head-first and engaging in that most clichéd of occupations, starting a band.
Themes of disconnection and disillusionment keep bopping to the surface, never more so than on the album's two towering centre-pieces "Misunderstood" and "Sunken Treasure": it's hard not to see the cries of ''I am so out of tune/with you'' (delivered with even more keen intensity on the two electrifying live takes on the tune in the extras) on the latter as a commentary on the decaying relationships within Tweedy's former band rather than any kind of more conventional heartbreak. These two extended cuts are peppered with discordant glimpses of white noise and hiss infestations that offer tantalising glimpses of the musical ambition that saw Wilco bid farewell to anything that could possibly be associated with alt. country/Americana on the ornately orchestrated Summer Teeth (1999) and the fraught and fractured Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001). Headed by the creatively restless Tweedy (who alongside bassist John Stirratt is the only remainder of the Being There line-up in 2017 model Wilco), they've never looked back since. It's a shame: this reissue provides a reminder that Wilco crafted some of their most moving and emotionally resonant music when their boots were still partially covered in mud.