Wilco ≤ A Ghost is Born

I think it was after my old man tried to get me to listen to A.M. and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that I realised I don’t really like Wilco; I like A Ghost is Born. Because it was on this album, and this album only, that Jeff Tweedy (and his band) resolved all the tensions in their sound, cleared away the alt.country floorboards and laid down one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever heard.

No other works reconciles tendencies and forms – restraint/freewheeling, noise/melody – quite like A Ghost is Born. Even moments of dissonance, which are prevalent, somehow make sense, as a sense of controlled chaos extends itself through the first track and all the way up the album. It's is suffused with a sense of ambient, which emerges more clearly after repeated listens, and pervaded by a sort of grey backdrop that the title might hint at. Yet this hazy quality doesn’t translate into a depressing listening experience nor a languid, stodgey album, but rather works as a sort of fog that makes everything else at once clearer and connected.

The most obviously experimental tendencies can be located in the first three tracks; even so, everything opens with a quiet, and Tweedy’s breathy, soft vocals: “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”. And then At Least That’s What You Said begins to crash, restless, stabby guitar moving in and piano falling around, before all the elements resolve into a captivating, electric instrumental chorus. After minutes of soloing work (which strangely is neither wanky nor trite, but instead serves to layer the pathos of the song) the guitar pulls back and quiet returns, leaving you breathless, and wide open for the second track.

Hell is Chrome is easier to swallow than the first number, with Tweedy’s inflection and pauses between lines working with the slower pace of the music. Something of the nightmare of urban living is told through Tweedy’s encounter with the chrome devil, who beckons him to “where everything is clean / so precise and tiring”. The doubled-up vocals towards the song’s coda will have you melting.

The third song, Spiders (Kidsmoke), is the band’s most epic jam to date; and possibly the album’s high point. Things start off with almost krautrock fastidiousness, guitar pulling behind flawless drums and moody organs. Tweedy enters with bizarre and haunting lyrics, along with some guitar freeform. All along, one can feel the song building to something, and when things finally do crash into the resounding piano-led chorus it’s the album’s pivotal moment. Such an excellent yet cognisant contrast is crafted through these seemingly incessant motorik drums that give way to increasingly rhythmic and awesome guitar and piano. The song replays this peaking movement twice again, leaving you reeling, and Tweedy’s vocals added towards the end take you over the edge. It’s just sonic.

Things soften for the pastoral atmosphere evoked by A Muzzle of Bees:

The sun gets passed from sea to sea
And back to me
With a breeze blown through
Pushed up above the leaves
With a breeze blown through
My head upon you knee
Half of it’s you
Half is me

Fifth song Hummingbird is relatively upbeat, recalling the band’s previous Beatles-pop tendencies showcased on Summerteeth. This bright spot continues in a more mild manner with Handshake Drugs, and both tracks, whilst similar to the older material, are just taken by something so much more than what was there before. Maybe it’s Tweedy’s amazing lyrics:

It’s ok for you to say what you want from me
I believe that’s the only way for me to be
Exactly what you want me to be

After some avant-noise, Wishful Thinking appears as possibly the album’s most reserved and melancholic moment. You begin to notice here the truly crystal production that features across A Ghost is Born, which allows all the necessary elements their own space and calibrates the various levels of ambience and instrumentation to their perfect height. The folk movement of this track is filled with avant-noise openings that augment its mood, like an eternally resounding country out-lick. Company in My Back upholds the more conventional feel of the album’s middle section, yet like the track before allowing more and more flourishes and jazzy, jammy tendencies to creep in and colour the song.

I’m a Wheel is simply the album’s most rollicking rock’n’roll moment (A Ghost is Born is astoundingly kaleidoscopic) with a fucking great chorus. Theologians then finishes on the enigmatic and impressionistic lines:

I am a notion
I am all emotion
I am a cherry ghost

The last two tracks of the album present something of a challenge. The otherwise beautiful Less Than You Think finishes itself off with ten minutes of whitenoise screech. Many critics have derided this moment as the album’s fatal over-step, but its intention is clear, as Tweedy has outlined in interviews: the purpose of the squall was to recreate something of the feeling of the chronic migraines he has experienced for years, and after subjecting yourself to its entirety this intention certainly seems fulfilled. The final track, The Late Greats, somewhat paradoxically is a throwaway radio jam that gives props to unknown artists and trashes the popular ones. Nevertheless, in its placement, one can’t help feel a certain sense of (tongue-in) cheekiness about it, and coming as it does after the shafts of piercing noise it’s a welcome light relief to finish the album on.

So what do we end up with? An album that is deeply personal and yet neither is it self-indulgent (except in the one spot it needs to be – the end of Less Than You Think). It is brave and yet assured. Wilco seem like they really knew what they were up to here. It is wildly uneven in tone and method, yet flawlessly cohesive in intent, execution and sentiment. You’d think the certain kinds of styles and structures chosen – motorik beats, jamming, soloing, non-linear composition, noise moments – would conflict with the emotion and expressive quality of the album, but somehow everything simply works together. A Ghost is Born manages to be both compellingly avant-garde and yet so heartwarming and familiar (through, not despite, its experimental tendency) that it feels like home to me. A Ghost is Born isn’t like a series of tracks, but rather a unitary creature; complex and polyvalent, of course, but remarkably in command of its unique, singular aesthetic. It’s very special, maybe even perfect.

Wilco - At Least That's What You Said

1 riffs:

tim said...

great article! i feel the same about wilco, i love ghost is born but don't really love wilco. that album completely sucked me in, it has an amazing ambient sound that really captures some kind of mood, and its a deceptively diverse set of songs but sounds more cohesive than the previous (& more lauded?) album. i've struggled to get into other albums beyond a few standout tracks eg "how to fight loneliness", "jesus etc"..