When they started, nobody gave Wilco a chance. That seems insane to hear now, what with Wilco being one of the elder statesmen of indie rock and the only alt-country band to transcend that sometimes-restricting label. However, back in 1993, Wilco were the overlooked stepchildren of the Uncle Tupelo breakup. Jeff Tweedy was regarded as a slight songwriter, a capable melodicist without any of the emotional complexity of his former songwriting partner Jay Farrar. And, to be honest, those opinions weren’t unfounded. It took a while for Tweedy to find his voice as a songwriter and for his then-young band to develop an identity outside of the long shadow cast by Uncle Tupelo. A.M., Wilco’s somewhat ill-regarded debut album, is a record filled with growing pains and choices made out of insecurity. Yet, by their next album, that insecurity was all but gone, replaced with overflowing confidence and a recklessly daring attitude.
Given that Wilco are best known nowadays for unexpected left turns, and a defiantly idiosyncratic nature, A.M. feels like even more of an anomaly. Of course, this has a lot to do with the fact that Tweedy had yet to come into his own as a songwriter at this point; he had only just kind of established his songwriting style as distinct from his former partner’s on what ended up being Uncle Tupelo’s last album. Thus, A.M. finds him trying to re-define himself again, and what we get is something of a lovelorn, doe-eyed songsmith when the band is firing on all cylinders.
When it works, we get moments like “Box Full of Letters”, the one true classic from A.M., and there are other enjoyable moments in the form of songs like “I Must Be High” and “That’s Not The Issue”. Indeed, much of A.M. is an enjoyable listen, but it still feels empty. That perhaps can be best summed up by “Passenger Side”, one of the fan favorites from this era. It’s a great song, but the sentiments expressed feel somewhat hollow coming from Tweedy. It reads either as Tweedy attempting to imitate Farrar or Tweedy doing a piss-take of the kind of booze-soaked ramblings Farrar was known for. Either way, it’s an example of Tweedy defining himself by outside forces rather than looking inward, and it shows just how much growth had to happen before Wilco could become a success.
Little did we know that that growth could come about so quickly. Listening to A.M. and Being There back-to-back is still shocking to this day. Where A.M. feels slightly timid and eager to please, Being There is brash and doesn’t give a fuck about pleasing anyone. Some of that could be chalked up to the change in personnel: for all of Brian Henneman’s skills as a player, he wasn’t quite the foil that Jay Bennett ended up being. And in Bennett, Tweedy had the perfect creative voice to challenge him and push him in different directions.
The change is right there in “Misunderstood”, one of the great opening salvos to an album ever: the fairly tight, conventional alt-country outfit that we knew is gone, replaced by a group barely holding themselves together as Tweedy wonders aloud why he’s doing any of this in the first place. That looseness pops up again and again throughout the album, from the skeletal, powerful “Sunken Treasure” to the album-closing rave-up “Dreamer in My Dreams”, and that spirit even infects the more conventional rock and country songs on the album.
Like most double albums, there isn’t much consistency of sound or arrangement; rockers like “Monday” and “I Got You (At the End of the Century)” are slotted alongside mournful ballads like “Say You Miss Me” and “The Lonely 1”. The lone element of consistency is Tweedy, who seems hell-bent on confronting his insecurities about himself and music, the thing that he alternately describes as his savior and as a malicious force. If A.M. tried to disguise Tweedy’s insecurity with a veneer of business-as-usual, Being There lays it all out for everyone to see.
Fittingly, the extra material sums up the reputation of each album. A.M. offers little beyond a few unreleased songs, an Uncle Tupelo cover, and an early version of Being There‘s “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” that sounds very far from the final version. Being There, on the other hand, offers a treasure trove of alternate mixes (including an excellent, dobro-heavy version of “I Got You”) and unreleased songs (one of which, “Capitol City”, did end up getting released on The Whole Love 15 years later).
But what’s really of value here is the inclusion of a full live set from a 1996 gig at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. This version of Wilco had a reputation for being one of the best live bands in America when they were on, and that’s the case here. They expertly balance the two faces of Being There, effectively instilling pathos on “Sunken Treasure” while also rocking out on “Monday” and “I Got You”. Tweedy also injects Uncle Tupelo’s “New Madrid” with an air of heart-rending desperation, and the infamous “punk” version of “Passenger Side” finds Tweedy doing his best Paul Westerberg. There’s a hungriness to this version of Wilco that reinforces the themes Tweedy pursued on Being There, and it’s best surmised by the last song in the set, a cover of the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” that was a staple of their sets at that point. It’s a sad, desperate song about loving someone who may not love you back, but their true intentions are unknowable and impossible to read. Tweedy, who only a short few years ago saw his rock star dreams come crashing down, sings it with the tenderness of a broken man who may not want to know the answer to the song’s question. That open, occasionally uncomfortable emotional vulnerability was one of many things that made Wilco one of America’s best bands, and it has its roots in Being There.
Listening to both of these records now can be a surreal experience. Now, we live in a world where Wilco is a firmly established band, well-respected and loved by an ever-growing fan base. Heck, their most recent records have an exceptionally relaxed vibe that can only really come from a songwriter who doesn’t need to prove anything anymore. In that sense, the Wilco of today serve to emphasize the vitality of their older work, albums that were born out of desperation, insecurity, and a desire to see out one’s dreams no matter the cost.