A Ghost Is Born

stealthily, inconspicuously, inexplicably, we have lost the Great American Album. Hovering portentously over a polluted sea of instantly gratifying hip-hop singles to one-off indie dance floor smashes, it hangs—part Kind Of Blue, part Tusk, part Blood On The Tracks, part Sign O’ The Times, part Illmatic—as a ghostly reminder of everything that serious music used to stand for. These albums are pain, pleasure, progress, courage, chutzpah, order and disorder, ego, apex and nadir, coherence and inscrutability, potency and subtlety. A great pop single offers a more immediate kick, and is just as difficult to create as a great album, but there’s something to be said for painting on a broad canvas.

This, admittedly, is an oversimplified version of the current American musical zeitgeist, a melodramatic, adjective-saturated portrait of a Nineveh waiting for the Great Flood, but still…it’s important that we recognize the quagmire we’re slowly falling into. Or, at least, let’s recognize and embrace a Great American Album when we hear one—because they do still exist—and not lash it with proto-critical buzzwords like “pretentious” and “overindulgent”. The reason we’ve lost the Great American Album is because albums are demanding, a chore that we have no time for in our fast-food nation.

This casual philosophizing is only an attempt at a contextual defense for why I think Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born is a Great American Album (and not just a great American album). An anodyne for all that is trivial in pop music, a band that couldn’t release a successful single if they tried, Wilco is the band for a hardcore rockist like me. I casually refer to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the band’s expansive, amorphous, near-flawless masterpiece of fractured Americana, as my all-time favorite album, and I justify this subjective, too-new-to-be-truly-classic selection by claiming that YHF taught me not only that melody is sweeter when hidden behind layers of noise, but that an album should be perceived as a singular, multi-faceted character instead of a collection. Any number of albums could have taught me this, but YHF is the friend I discovered as an impressionable teenager with a driver’s license and hours spent in traffic, with nothing to concentrate on but the stereo.

So it is with considerable nostalgic confusion that I find A Ghost Is Born destined for a confused reception rather than the unanimous critical approbation of its predecessor. Because it’s even more brilliant. On almost every level, Jeff Tweedy and Co. have concocted the perfect follow-up to an epochal, career-defining record—taking greater risks and yielding deeper rewards—and finding more challenging ways to channel pain that just won’t quit. This is a sporadically abrasive, alienating listen, chock full of lyrical abstraction and guitar licks that hurt so good.

If the album has a unifying theme, it’s the casual descent of beauty into chaos; a number of songs start quietly and end in complete disorder—a form of musical entropy—perhaps inspired by Tweedy’s lifelong battle with unpredictable migraine headaches.

“At Least That’s What You Said”, the opening track, begins with a whimpering piano and acoustic guitar, as Tweedy intones soberly in the aftermath of a lover’s quarrel:

You're irresistible when you get mad Isn't it sad, I'm immune I thought it was cute For you to kiss My purple black eye Even though I caught it from you I still think we're serious

For about two minutes, the song echoes the quieter moments of Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night, before abruptly shifting into a loud, distorted, shimmering extended guitar jam, with an all-out drum assault for a climax. The experience is staggering; the primal, wailing guitar speaks immediate emotional volumes contrasting with Tweedy’s taciturn lyrical obscurity.

“Muzzle of Bees”, one of the strongest songs in the Wilco catalog, presents another journey from order to disorder, morphing effortlessly from a gorgeously simple Nick Drake idyll to a poignant electric guitar squall. It’s a compact amalgamation of everything Wilco circa 2004 can do as a band, and not merely a conduit for one singer/songwriter’s brilliant whimsy.

Though ego-driven infighting and numerous lineup changes have left the band’s stability in question, Wilco has never sounded as confident as they do on A Ghost Is Born. This is a fantastic guitar-rock album, one that would sound just as incendiary without lyrics.

However, A Ghost Is Born doesn’t showcase the pretty, NPR-approved Wilco of alt-country past. For better or worse, this is an album with avant-garde ambitions. Like a rock-n’-roll incarnation of Stan Brakhage, Wilco presents the casual listener with two pretentious, cacophonous, 10+ minute hurdles. Though these sonic experiments succeed and fail in equal measure, they serve as arduous reminders of why Wilco is the most uncompromising and adventurous American rock band of our generation.

Placed third on the album, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is like an obstruction meant to filter out all but the most courageous listeners. The tuneless, omnipresent keyboard loop situates us somewhere on an endless Autobahn, while guitar strings are plucked with little regard for rhythm and melody. Every so often, Tweedy spouts goofy non-sequiturs about spiders, taxes, and Michigan beaches. It shouldn’t work; Wilco is not a jam band. And yet, with every listen, it weaves an increasingly hypnotic spell, cascading into layers of aching guitars, and intermittent, orderly rock-outs. Somehow, the pain becomes pleasure.

“Less Than You Think”, the album’s second-to-last and second 10+ minute track, reaches greater levels of indefensibility. For three minutes, the song serves as an unusually poignant piano ballad whose lyrics, ostensibly, describe a migraine headache.

Then, the song’s last note stretches out for nine minutes, changing into something artificial and eventually infuriating, the sound of a high-pitched amplifier left on in an empty room. It sounds like sadistic self-indulgence, a uniquely discomfiting bit of wankery, and yet, when it ends, merging haphazardly into the album’s poppiest track, it starts to make a bit of sense. “The Late Greats”, the buoyant album closer, is the album’s obvious single, hidden behind layers of endless droning, and its lyrics lend a well-deserved nod to the perseverant listener:

The greatest lost track of all time:
The Late Greats' "Turpentine"
You can't hear it on the radio
You can't hear it anywhere you go

The best band will never get signed
K-Settes starring Butcher's Blind
Are so good, you won't ever know
They never even played a show
You can't hear 'em on the radio

Those without a proclivity for sonic experiments will still find A Ghost Is Born the most melodically acute album of Wilco’s career, with Beatlesque songcraft (“Hell Is Chrome”, “Humminbirds”) giving way to dada post-punk (“I’m A Wheel”) and cathartic pop balladry (“Theologians”).

But a rock band isn’t supposed to hold your hand. A rock band is supposed to kick your ass. I love A Ghost Is Born because it makes my ears bleed and then swabs them with cotton.

So. How can I give a perfect rating to an unforgiving enigmatic album that indulges in its own deliberate imperfections? Because I think that, withA Ghost Is Born, Wilco is instructing the NOW! Generation, with enough hooks to prevent didacticism, how to explore the ancient abyss of the Album. And those who say we have nothing more to learn should take a long, hard look at the morass that is rock music in the year 2004.


Reviewed by: Akiva Gottlieb
Reviewed on: 2004-06-21
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