The cynics who would dismiss rock 'n' roll--the formula kind, the guitar-vocals-bass-drum kind, the kind Chuck Berry created and the Beatles and Brian Wilson made perfect--look instead toward a rave new world; they write off rock as a dead form to be discarded like a pen that has run out of ink. They peer toward techno tomorrows and ambient futures, the oceans of sound of which critic David Toop writes, where music becomes "a predominantly fluid, non-verbal, non-linear medium; the electronic ocean of the next century." Which is all well and good--but not enough, not ever. A great song--an honest lyric, a passionate performance, a revelation that shakes loose from an unexpected chord change, the connection between an unselfish performer and an audience--can't be measured in beats per minute.
Wilco exists as proof of the gentle force of a simple rock 'n' roll song: It's a band that checks into the future carrying bags bursting with the past; it borrows, plunders and apes shamelessly from the rock 'n' roll of another era and admits it from the git-go. It's a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll, and that it grew from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo (the most influential band of the early '90s that no one outside the cult has heard of) only stands as testament to the underutilization of Jeff Tweedy in that band after all. Being There transcends Tupelo--and, by connection, Jay Farrar's Son Volt, the other band to spring from Tupelo's still-warm embers--and broadens Tupelo's scope.
Where Tweedy and Farrar were once self-conscious disciples of Depression-era country and Reagan-era punk, where they once set rural folk music to an urban beat (still Farrar's calling card today), Tweedy has expanded his body of work to include everything he's ever listened to. He reveals himself not so much through his lyrics, which are more often than not sweet love songs about indefinite separation and inevitable reconciliation, but through his choice of melodies or instruments. He divulges his passions through the inclusion of a Dobro in a rock song or, now, a string section; and he proudly shows you his influences but makes no excuses, using the past not as an outline but a fragile skeleton upon which to hang his own sensitive flesh.
Being There--19 songs revealed over two discs, the rare double album that lives up to its length--is, at its heart, a recording about being a musician and, most of all, a music fan; it's a love song to love songs, an homage to the Beatles and Beach Boys and Byrds (Tweedy doesn't get much beyond the B's in his record collection), a tacit admission that everything's been written before, but that it's okay to keep trying anyway. Tweedy forgives other songwriters' faults and doesn't excuse his own, seems to make things up on the spot as he stumbles over lyrics, then turns around and lays on you this immaculately, beautifully produced song that could have fit on Pet Sounds.
"Someone Else's Song" comes about halfway through the second disc, but it could have been the album's first cut. Over a simple, repetitive acoustic guitar, Tweedy comes right out and admits there's nothing he can tell you--an imaginary lover, perhaps, or maybe even a casual listener--that you don't already know. He knows you have already been told this story a thousand times before, that you've already heard his I-love-you's, and that he sounds "like what's-his-name." But, he declares in an emphatic whisper, "I keep on trying/I should just let it go/I keep on singin' and your eyes they just roll/It sounds like someone else's song from a long time ago/But you can't stop me I want you to know."
Maybe it's an easy trick, a way of silencing his detractors by beating them to the self-deprecating punch; there are indeed those critics who dismiss Tweedy as too much the record fan, as a former record-store employee who wears his massive collection on his album sleeve and steals myriad ancient riffs to form his "own" music. But Wilco's music doesn't feel that cold and doesn't come off that calculated.
Tweedy is one of rock 'n' roll's last honest musicians, a guy you can believe in as much as you once could Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen back when they mattered; he belongs in their ranks because you always believe Tweedy's telling you the truth: his truth, our truth, the truth that belongs to anyone who still believes in the power of a simple song told simply, passionately, honestly.
"The Lonely One" may well have been written about (even for) a particular musician; perhaps we'll never know. In it, Tweedy steps off the stage and stands beside us as nothing more than "a rock 'n' roll fan" who lives only to hear his favorite singer perform his favorite song one more time. He recounts a concert as though writing about a lover in a diary: "You stood alone in a halo's haze/Shining guitar hung on gold lame/And you, you were the lonely one/You were the lonely one," he sings, his voice almost breaking. It's so sincere it's almost embarrassing, especially when he apologizes for being "just a fan."
But it's also so wonderfully real: What are our favorite musicians if not reflections of our own desires, dreams, fears, imperfections? We choose our rock 'n' roll heroes--and even our villains--because they allow us, for three minutes or a lifetime, to live through them and become who we were, are, or want to be. The Byrds poked fun at being a rock 'n' roll star, Kurt Cobain griped about being one throughout In Utero, but Jeff Tweedy above everyone else understands the passion of the music fan because he is one--he is us. "I play the ones from yesterday, I play your song just to hear you say that you, you're the lonely one," he moans, and everyone goes home alone.
Le Roi Est Mort, Vive le Roi!
Close your eyes. Relax. You are falling into a deep, tranquil sleep. What's that? The music?
Yes, I've carefully chosen some exotic, soothing, meditative rhythms and drones to guide you peacefully along the journey to your inner self. The woman's voice is just part of it. Yes, the chanting Catholic monks, too. This is the new Enigma CD, as a matter of fact. You might remember Enigma--it had that vaguely religious, mildly erotic ambient/pop hit back in 1991, "Sadeness." Right, right, that monk and flute thing with the woman speaking French. Well, she speaks English now.
Don't be startled. Settle back, settle back. My, that male voice that just intruded over the monks is a bit up-front in the mix, isn't it? No, it's not Mind Games-era John Lennon outtakes. Still Enigma. Mmmmm, well, it is rather poppish. Okay, it's blatant Top 40 material. Yes, the singer sounds like the bastard son of Bryan Adams and Don Henley. But feel the music, let it transport you.
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This is track seven, "The Child in Us." Now we're getting somewhere. Well, yes, it's like a soundtrack for one of those ethnic-rainbow, can't-we-all-just-get-along British Airways TV commercials, but yes, here comes the Bryan Adams clone again. And now what? No, Enya and her banks of reverb units and strings have not stopped by for a jam session. It's the next track, "T.N.T. for the Brain." Not a very ambient title.
Now, where were we? Oh, this one's called "Roundabout." See, it actually gets a little heavy and seductive with the drums and all . . . oh, yes, until he starts singing. Well, maybe he's got something deep to say. What are the lyrics? Let's see . . . um, "Ah-yay, ah-yay, ah-yay ah-yah."
Ah, track 12. The last song, "Odyssey of the Mind." The woman speaks again: "There's no teacher who can teach anything new. He can just help us to remember the things we always knew." When I snap my fingers, you will awaken and remember nothing. That will be $15.99.