Where to go from here: your band has released not just its career-defining album, but a record that will undoubtedly go down as one of the decade’s artistic hallmarks; you’ve subsequently amassed so much press that they’ll have to build a special wing in the Chicago public library to house it all; and in the process, you’ve beat the record company at its own game. You’ve passed “Go” and collected $200. The world is your oyster.
If you’re Wilco, you waste no time in recording and releasing A Ghost is Born, the incomparable follow-up to 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It’s not a surprise that Wilco could concoct a record as consistently challenging and satisfying as its universally hallowed masterpiece. Did anyone expect anything less? After all, this is the band that was crowned king of the alt-country mountain with A.M. (1995) and Being There (1996), sunned itself in under a heat lamp of Beatles and ELO in Summerteeth (1999), and aided Billy Bragg in transforming scores of Woody Guthrie lyrics into the relevant folk-rock over two Mermaid Avenue volumes. It’s of little consequence whether or not Ghost is a “better” record than the others in Wilco’s catalog (when a band’s output is this strong, such discussion is frivolous). Ghost is as good as anything the band has ever released, and is just as complicated, unrestrained, and mysterious as one can expect from pop music. It maintains elements of the band’s past while wading in uncharted expanses of sound. It’s simultaneously the band’s loudest and quietest record to date. To quote one of Ghost‘s songs, it’s an ocean—“an abyss in motion”.
The Future Has a Valley and a Shortcut Around
Jeff Tweedy isn’t in a rush to get Wilco to its unforeseeable destination—this is a guy who once sang, “You wanna take the long cut / We’ll get there eventually”. Ghost is a more patient record than its predecessor, spaciously unfolding with a level-headed confidence. In contrast, Yankee felt more urgent, littered with dense, storied tapestries of extravagant embellishments. Both albums’ opening tracks illustrate this in a nutshell: “At Least That’s What You Said” charts a slow crawl from its sleepy, sparse first half to its crackling livewire finale; “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” restlessly shifts its sound from moment to moment, like a cut-and-paste mélange of different takes, one of those everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink production jobbies that reveals hidden layers upon repeated listens. It would seem that Wilco, faced with the pressure of following up on a superlative and exalted release, opted for a steadfast, leisurely route. On its surface, Ghost may appear less innovative than YHF if only because it’s more meditative, more spontaneous, and less ambitious—but that certainly doesn’t make it any less important.
Floating Fast Like a Hummingbird
Ghost rewards the listener with fits and spells of cohesion and beauty bursting from unassuming setups. Revelatory nuggets are hidden within the record’s tranquil crevices much like a legion of proverbial needles in the haystack. Like the fuzzy first hour spent waking up, these moments offer Wilco the opportunity to excavate secrets from a foundation of muted and dissonant tones. “Hell is Chrome” begins with a deliberate bouncy Beatles fake-out, only to grow more reserved as it congeals; Tweedy’s guitar floats from the haze, splitting into two separate tracks that retreat and then magnetically pull back into a spectral symbiosis. The big payoff in “Hummingbird” is its White Album-era viola melody, hinted at frequently but ultimately held off until the final moments of the song. “Muzzle of Bees” may harbor the album’s most irresistible tickle of acoustic instrumentation, but flaunts these little ecstatic flourishes only twice during its near-five minute runtime. Wilco even buries the most accessible pop songs deep in the second half of the record: “Company in My Back”, “Theologians”, and “The Late Greats” could have been easily front-loaded by a band with half the confidence, but Ghost aims to keep the listener conscious of their involvement in its unfurling.
This concept is taken to challenging extremes twice during the record. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” sustains a dry flat-line, methodically pulsing to a mechanical, Kraut rock drone before offering release in the simplest of authoritative rock progressions. The song’s sudden break into a tight descending riff feels more incredible than it actually is, if only because we’ve been teased with minutes of monotony beforehand. “Less Than You Think” sinks slowly, entombed in 12 minutes of what sounds like sonar readings in the bowels of a submarine. Both songs beg to challenge preconceived notions of sounds and songs: the former testing endurance and release and the latter encouraging discoveries beneath the artifice of sustained noise. You thought the few minutes of short wave radio static in Yankee‘s “Poor Places” was impenetrable? “Less Than You Think” takes sonic confrontation to uncomfortable depths. Whether or not you go reaching for the fast-forward button or bask in its high-pitched defiance, “Less Than You Think” (and subsequently, Wilco’s brash audacity) cannot be unceremoniously ignored.
The pursuit of dissonance has always been a volatile aspect of Wilco’s chemistry; noise and chaos encroached on the beauty of earlier songs like “Misunderstood”, “Sunken Treasure”, and “Via Chicago”. Yankee built itself upon the ruins of dissonance, like a frequently interrupted shortwave radio broadcast to which its very title alluded. Ghost takes this obsession with discordant dilapidations a step further. Nearly every track on the album tangles with unharmonious disruptions: the frantic, bug-trapped-in-a-window guitar tweaks in “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”; the off-key martial stomp that bridges the two sections of “At Least That’s What You Said”; the churning migraine of confusion that imposes on the complacent acoustic groove of “Handshake Drugs”. Ghost places moments of placid simplicity next to near-volcanic eruptions of disturbance and manages to make both appear mutually beautiful. Disparate elements feed off one another, like a bi-polar song cycle that sustains itself by alternating between two distinct personalities. Rarely do pop bands engage so blatantly in jarring mood swings, or more specifically, succeed so wondrously in plotting rich pop melodies next to bubbling instabilities. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band flirted with contradictory ambitions and essentially created a template for others to follow. David Bowie attempted it numerous times via countless guises, with mixed results. Brian Wilson was driven crazy pursuing it (the results of his quest never officially seeing the light of day). Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac achieved a sort of shattered glass refraction of the digital age. More recently, Animal Collective has achieved a similar fractured bliss with Sung Tongs, which is no doubt indebted to YHF‘s stylistic watershed.
You Must Go, So I Went
The absence of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett is pungently palpable throughout the entirety of Ghost. Bennett had become an integral part of Wilco’s studio work, helping to arrange and engineer YHF—an intense dedication that, for better or worse, led to his dismissal from the band during that record’s creation. The arrangements on Ghost don’t bear the stuffed, weighty resonance that Bennett helped to create; in essence, it’s the band’s most unembellished recording since Being There. If YHF was the premeditated peeling of the knotty tree bark, then Ghost is the bare tree, still rooted in soil but exposed and regenerating. Multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach (who joined the band during YHF‘s conception) and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen (newly joined for Ghost) step up to fill Bennett’s shoes. Both seem to revel in the loose, open-ended atmosphere, weighing in with the adept chameleonic grace of seasoned session musicians. Bassist John Stirratt is (along with Tweedy) Wilco’s sole member from the original incarnation, and he remains the band’s obstinate heart. In concert with Ghost‘s classic rock influences, Stirratt’s playing is more reminiscent of McCartney than ever before; it’s impossible to gauge what these last few records would sound like without his continued involvement.
Wilco’s constant shift of band members undoubtedly allows it to repeatedly become something that it wasn’t. Ken Coomer (Wilco’s original drummer held over from Tweedy’s tenure in Uncle Tupelo) excelled in propulsive rock drumming, a style that suited early rave-ups like “Casino Queen”, “Monday”, and “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”. When Glenn Kotche was brought in as Coomer’s replacement for YHF, he seemed to share Tweedy’s passion for pop deconstruction and thrived on taking liberties with standard time-keeping. Is Wilco’s ability to stay one step ahead of its peers due to the fact that its DNA has altered so drastically since 1995? Probably. Could a record as unidentifiable as YHF or Ghost even be conceived with its original lineup intact? Probably not. Whether or not you feel inclined to rechristen the band as Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco, such changes have been necessary to save the band from utter internal collapse.
I Am All Emotion
One thing is for sure: as much as the individual band members make indelible indentations, as devoted as each musician is in his dedication to molding the Wilco “sound”, Tweedy’s vision is what steers the ship. Lyrically, Tweedy withdrew further into his impressionistic impulses with YHF‘s poeticism. His stream-of-consciousness imagery—“I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue”, “You are not my typewriter / But you could be my demon”, “Picking apples for the kings and queens of things I’ve never seen”—was a reflection of that album’s oblique hall of mirrors production. But it’s also an indication of what Tweedy wants to say now, or more appropriately, how he wants to say it. In other words, it’s the order of words that matter, the way words sound together, the myriad of feelings such impulsive poetics provoke. Gone are the days of passenger sides, boxes full of letters, and Choo-Choo Charlie; now it’s all ashes of American flags, melodies that turn your orbit around, and muzzles of bees.
Ghost is Earthbound, organic and grounded in the spontaneous interaction of a rock band; therefore, Tweedy is more grounded as well and lends an emotional resonance to the proceedings. He spends most of the record singing with a mousey reserve, as if these songs are bedside whispers at heart. “When I sat down on the bed next to you / You started to cry,” Tweedy ekes out at the start of “At Least That’s What You Said”, “I said maybe if I leave you’ll want me / To come back home”. The songs are steeped in clouds of little significant remembrances, with Tweedy at his most pensive and introspective. In “Hummingbird”, he sings of a man whose “goal in life was to be an echo”, and requests: “Remember to remember me / Standing still in your past”. He even gets downright pastoral in the natural imagery of “Muzzle of Bees”, submissive and confessional in “Handshake Drugs”, and steadily defiant in “Theologians”. Yankee songs like “I’m the Man Who Loves You” and “Reservations” merely hinted such significant internalizations, as most of that album mushroom clouded into the atmosphere of instable city imagery.
Tweedy has also found a new outlet for such wellsprings of charged emotion: the guitar solo. This may be the element of Ghost that comes off as the most surprising. Tweedy’s like a hurricane? Yup. Actually, he’s more like Neil Young learning Thurston Moore’s solos (or vice versa). They all reek of a player who has recently discovered his instrument’s voice, but are endlessly fascinating as they skirt around typical solo confines, refusing to follow a song’s melody or chord structure, and often contribute to the overall dissonance of the piece.
I Will Turn on You
Perhaps contemporary ears are too trained to acknowledge blatant innovation (see: YHF) and aren’t so willing to maneuver through Ghost‘s admittedly scrappy, less surgically altered landscape. A small movement of backlash has begun in the form of a few disappointed critics, who have chosen to take Ghost at face value: New Musical Express lamented its “worrying lack of focus”; Blender stated that only “after the fifth or twentieth listen, ...[it] starts to insinuate meaning”; and Pitchfork described the record’s “underwhelming feeling”, deeming it “wildly uneven” and “less cohesive than any other Wilco release”.
Why do some refuse to give Ghost the same amount of room to grow, mature, and reveal itself as they lavished upon YHF? Ray Carney, writing specifically about cinema in his book The Films of John Cassavetes, made intuitive observations on the creations of the ambitious artist: “[They] can only teach us new understandings by forcibly denying us old ones, and that can be bewildering. They can only freshen and quicken our responses by altering our habitual modes of perception, and that can be disorienting”. This idea can be directly applied to what we’re required to do as listeners with Ghost: refine our sensibilities, restructure our expectations, and wholly cleanse an existing palette for a new experience. The refusal to grow stagnant with rehashed complacency is what keeps Wilco meaningful; Ghost is yet another manifestation of this ideal, albeit in an entirely different form. “I’m a wheel,” Tweedy squeals in the record’s final third, “I will turn on you”. This is an apt summation of what Ghost does: it turns on you, rotating at will, inciting you to focus as its wheel goes round and round.