Wilco’s Balancing Act

“Rock ‘n’ roll is my savior,” sings Jeff Tweedy on “Sunken Treasure,” from Wilco’s forthcoming sophomore effort, Being There (Reprise). “I was named by rock ‘n’ roll / I was maimed by rock ‘n’ roll / I was tamed by rock ‘n’ roll.” Tweedy claims he improvised those lines in the studio, but they make a tidy epigram for the 19-song double album, which is due out next month.

Wilco’s 1995 debut, A.M., was a shotgun response to the liberation Tweedy felt when Uncle Tupelo broke up, a spirited collection that accented rock over the artful emulation of country for which his first band was acclaimed. Being There is even more of a rock album, but it’s also an attempt to temper rock’s inherent solipsism. En route from A to B, Tweedy married Lounge Ax co-owner Susan Miller and became the father of Spencer Miller Tweedy, big steps that took his work in a new direction.

“I got a lot off my chest about spending my whole life playing music and being obsessed with it,” says Tweedy, who spent about 200 days on the road last year. “I know I can’t function that way anymore. To have a home life anywhere near normal I’m not going to be able to put so much weight on music, and to me that’s a good thing. It gets suffocating. I concentrated on letting the past go, letting it be whatever it was, and placing more importance on being a dad and being home, which is hard for me.”

Tweedy tackles the rock life from a variety of angles: “Monday,” a horns-sweetened stomper that wouldn’t sound out of place on Sticky Fingers, surveys the wannabe star who forgets why he started playing music in the first place. “Choo Choo Charlie had a pretty good band, but no one would come,” Tweedy sings; to make matters worse, Charlie’s neighbors, the mythical World Record Players, tour Japan while Charlie spends his days “fixing his van with a left-arm tan.” On the more introspective “Misunderstood,” a rocker goes home again to find himself alienated from not only what he left behind but also what he’s singing about; the song’s somber swells of piano, stark strumming, and effective use of backward tape recall Big Star’s emotionally raw Sister Lovers.

But it’s “Sunken Treasure” that bridges the gap from past to present. The narrator sees the myth of rock-star-as-visionary as just that, and following a discordant crescendo a la the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” he’s reborn as a guy with the same questions and the same answers as anyone else.

Being There isn’t all trials and tribulations. The ultrahooky “I Got You” is giddily positive, endlessly declaring “I got you and that’s all I need”–and Tweedy defiantly amends the line a minute later to “I got you and I still believe that you’re all I’ll ever need.” As the tune winds down Tweedy sings, “It’s the end of the century and I can’t think of anything…,” pauses, as if he’s trying to think of something, then finishes with “except you.” “A lot of my songs are conversational and I don’t want to rely on memory for them,” explains Tweedy. “I’ll finish them in front of Sue, and her reaction will affect how I end it.”

By the nature of a few offhand remarks he makes, it appears that Tweedy still harbors some ill will toward Uncle Tupelo cofounder Jay Farrar, who quit the band on the heels of 1993’s Anodyne, but he’s reticent about the particulars. He did meet last winter with Reprise employees in New York to ask them not to use Uncle Tupelo or Farrar’s band Son Volt (who are signed to Sire, another Warner label) to market Wilco’s new record. But Tweedy’s request makes artistic sense–the Wilco of Being There bears little resemblance to either of those bands.

The break Wilco continues to make with No Depression, the neo-country-rock movement named for Uncle Tupelo’s first album, mirrors Tweedy’s real-life maturation. While a rural twang flavors quite a few of the album’s tracks, the dominant influences are those of the Stones, Beatles, Beach Boys, and Big Star. “I think the idea of roots rock being the ‘next big thing’ is just so silly,” says Tweedy. “I found an old copy of [the Saint Louis music zine] Jet Lag from 1985 and there was a big article about the new country-rock movement. It happens every ten years–it’s never really gone away. I warned the label not to use No Depression as a marketing thing, because it’s gonna fall flat on its face. I just can’t picture 14-year-old kids driving around blasting Whiskeytown or whatever.”

The sheer bulk of Being There could also test fan loyalty. According to Soundscan A.M. has sold 62,000 copies, and Reprise was initially hesitant about releasing a double album by a band that, in corporate eyes, hasn’t delivered on the charts. But the songs eventually won them over. The band took a reduced royalty rate and the label will take a profit cut to keep the list price down around $17. “Aesthetically I liked it better as two CDs rather than just one long CD,” says Tweedy. “The songs are really different and it doesn’t really have a focus, and that’s kind of the way I feel now.”

Wilco will play a pair of live shows at Lounge Ax on October 22 and 23 in advance of the album’s October 29 release.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jeff Tweedy photo by Brad Miller.