Wilco – A Ghost is Born

Wilco
A Ghost is Born

To call A Ghost is Born “the long-awaited new album from Wilco” might be a bit of an exagerration. It has been readily available via a “web stream” on the band’s homepage for a few months now (fully legal and band-sanctioned), and Wilco has been touring with the new material since May. Still, the popularity and critical reception of their previous release, the lauded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, will surely place an unusual level of critical attention on Ghost (i.e., alert the backlash police). True to form, Jeff Tweedy and his compatriots have totally ignored whatever positive or negative expectations may have been floating in the air around the studio and made, from the sounds of it, exactly the album they wanted to. Which, as I see it, is fantastic news for the rest of us.

Ghost sees Wilco peeling back the layers of instrumentation the band has been adding since their first album. Being There haltingly introduced an array of keyboards to A.M.‘s guitar-driven sound, with the now famously departed Jay Bennett adding piano, clavinet, and various organs judiciously to the mix. Summerteeth saw a move into full-bore Brain Wilson territory. Crashing waves of antique keys and glittering tremolo buoyed that album’s heart-heavy lyrical content. On Foxtrot, Tweedy, working with Jim O’Rourke (Sonic Youth), learned to manipulate an impossibly complex soundscape to tease out echoes of emotional resonance from each song by interleaving dozens of instrumental tracks recorded during several different sessions. For Ghost O’Rourke returns as producer, but his reputation for piling layer upon layer of noise is belied by this album’s simplicity of arrangement. In fact, after Foxtrot, this album sounds downright spartan. Reportedly, most of the album was recorded live, but only after the arrangements and mix had been painstakingly plotted out. This gives the songs a deceptively lo-fi quality without sounding amateurish, at least until “Less Than You Think,” the second-to-last track, which shatters the lo-fi feel by dissolving into a 10-minute sound collage that would sound at home anywhere on Foxtrot.

Between that song and “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” which clocks in at 10:50, certain fans will likely throw up their hands in exasperation, crying pretension. In a sense, they’ll be justified. After the well-publicized record industry coup that landed Wilco its deal with Nonesuch, the band must feel like it can get away with murder, and this album reflects that fearlessness. But a work like this is only self-indulgent if its accoutrements aren’t justifiable. Wilco makes every note count on this album: however miraculously, it all manages to cohere. And the songs are undeniably stunning. Listen to the melodic, piano-driven wistfulness of “Hummingbird”: “Remember to remember me / standing still in your memory / floating fast like a hummingbird.” Regret is never cast a self-pity, but rather as straight-faced resignation.

One remarkable aspect of Ghost that will likely go largely ignored is the progress Jeff Tweedy has made as a lyricist. Song lyrics, even good ones, are rarely truly good pieces of writing. At best, they are serviceable conduits of the songwriter’s intended meaning, getting the point across obliquely or directly, and the words are either pretty, jarring, or something in between, as need be. The self-contained, internal resonance of a true poem is rarely witnessed. While the words on Ghost certainly don’t transcend this, many come close, and they contain some truly arresting moments. “Hell is Chrome” meditates on a too-clean, stifling existence, but the description is undeniably inviting, irresistible: “The air was crisp like sunny late winter days. / A springtime yawning high in the haze, and I felt like I belonged.”

Juxtaposing this siren call, however, is the menace of a bloodless existence: “‘Come with me. You must go.’ / So I went where everything was clean / So precise and towering.” The lyrics reveal a preoccupation with the tyranny of an Ayn Rand sort of existence, repressive orderliness, and if this reminds anyone of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, it’s understandable. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” ends with the Yorke-ian declaration, “There’s no blood on my hands / I do as I’m told.”

However, while Yorke is often guilty of draining the blood from his very critiques of bloodlessness, Tweedy is, as usual, unwilling or unable to remove heart from the equation. His trademark, in contrast to Yorke’s, has always been his emotional nakedness, and while his work is rarely as mordant as Yorke’s, it is always more soulful. And here as always Tweedy turns inward, nowhere more powerfully than on the opening song, “At Least That’s What You Said”: “I said, ‘Maybe if I leave you’ll want me to come back home.’ / Or maybe all you mean is leave me alone. At least, that’s what you said.”

Tweedy croaks these lyrics over soft strains of piano, creating a surprisingly gripping doorway into the album. But the quiet is quickly shattered by a couple of jarring, choked electric guitar chords (overlaid by a soft Moog scale), which lead into an extended guitar coda that sees Tweedy updating Neil Young in a manic, feedback-driven frenzy. The melancholic piano vamp continues underneath the pyrotechnics, however, and in the end the outburst of noise fades as quickly as it had risen up, leaving the narrator just as bereft as he began.

The effortlessly mournful tone is something that Tweedy mastered two or three albums ago, of course, but here he deploys it in a harsher context that sets these songs apart from familiar pop pathos. But they are also set apart from Wilco’s canon, another reinvention from maybe the least static band in American music.