Finally, someone gets it right about Wilco. JB over at Fraters Libertas sums up in one sentence what it means to be a fan of the Radiohead of the Midwest:
Wilco is music for people who care more about what it means to own a Wilco CD than what is actually on the CD itself.Bingo.
It didn't have to be that way. Once upon a time, Wilco was a rock and roll band. Sure, they weren't the kind of rock and roll band that does frosty rails off hookers' racks, but they were a rock and roll band nonetheless.
Their first album, AM, was viewed at the time as a flagship for the mid-nineties alt-country armada (which never left port). While that element is there, AM actually borrows as much from the Stones and Neil Young as it does Uncle Tupelo (Tweedy's previous band, and the mold for all alt-country bands since).
Then came the big enchilada, Being There: a double-album sophomore release, and a foreshadowing of the pretension to come. Nevertheless, at least the first half is still rock and roll, some of it great: "End of the Century", "Hotel Arizona", and "Outta Mind (Outta Site)" are bar-band tunes gone to artschool, and it works. Many of the quieter numbers are understated and pretty, even though the second disc wanders off course.
However, it's the first track on the first disc of Being There, "Misunderstood", which gives the clearest indication of where Wilco were about to go. While the tune starts out nice enough, the lyrics are bitter and self-pitying, and the track ends in a wall of noise.
Tweedy chose to open the album with this track for a reason; it was a signal to the critics that he, Jeff Tweedy, was an Artist with a capital A.
Tweedy rightly recognized that the alt-country movement he helped to create would eventually become a straitjacket. There were only two ways out: commercial or cult.
Commercial is not an option for an average-looking guy in his thirties with too much brains. That leaves cult. The money's not great, but you can make a living. However, that living is dependent upon constant critical praise. The key to getting that praise is pretension.
So, goodbye tried-and-true song structures, hello jarring arrangements. Melody dissolves into noise, and guitars get traded-in for pawn-shop synthesizers. Lyrics become inscrutable, titles become meaningless. Good times are to be avoided at all times. And above all else, it must be baffling to anyone who likes Top 40 radio. To build a career on critical praise, you gotta get weird.
Nowadays, Tweedy makes a decent living playing to full theatres, he's worshipped by his cult of sweater-wearing fanboys, and his records are treated like Camus novels by the kind of people who write for Slate and Salon. There's even a nauseating black and white documentary about the band's "struggle" for "creative freedom" with big bad Time Warner.
Of course, the music stinks. It's boring, it's annoying, it's depressing, and it's lame. But to music critics, and to the affluent, educated, white liberals who read them, it is better to be boring and lame and underground than it is to be boring and lame and commercial.
Sigh. I wish the band that made Being There would go back there.
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