Ten years after the release of A Ghost Is Born, the songs still just aren't there.
I should clarify. A Ghost Is Born is a disappointment not because it’s worse than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which was easily one of the best albums of 2002 and which was, for me (and for I imagine tons of others after Pitchfork gave it a perfect score) the entry point to the band. That line of thought definitely does not need to be pursued.
A Ghost Is Born is a disappointment because “At Least That’s What She Said”, the opener and one of the best songs on the album, suffers from a terrible mixing job. While it's easy to love love how claustrophobic the guitar sounds, especially at the 4:00 mark, which leads to the descending drums to add to the chaos, you’re going to thumb your iPod’s volume knob all the way up during the soft parts to hear whatever Jeff Tweedy’s saying. After that, you'll then have to clamor to turn it down once the guitar workout begins because tinnitus is a serious illness, people. One need only compare this to the version on Kicking Television: Live in Chicago to see the fault in the original mix.
A Ghost Is Born is a disappointment because “Hell Is Chrome" suffers from a terrible bridge (starting at the 2:50 mark) wherein it sounds like it’s going to launch into some badass proportions but it never does. Instead, the band just adds play-'70s sci-fi tones that should’ve been left in the '70s and the verse returns immediately after. Other than that, I like the catchy piano intro that hooks you, and the good enough hook in the outro that makes it worth going through the sludge. I also like the muted guitar crunch (starting at the 1:08 mark) that pushes the song towards its edge and gives it an edge.
A Ghost Is Born is a disappointment because “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” reminds me of “The Bogus Man” off Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure, in that both are passable Krautrock imitations by bands that ought to have no business playing Krautrock. Both have infectious grooves; I quite like when Wilco breaks the established groove to establish a new one, e.g. the 3:58 mark. But, then there's the rub: both go on for way too long. From Pitchfork's Rob Mitchum's review: “Where 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart' spent its lengthy runtime constantly shapeshifting, 'Spiders/Kidsmoke' seems too content to simply spin its wheels for upwards of 10 minutes."
A Ghost Is Born is a disappointment because “Muzzle of Bees”, the token alt-country track, has no excuse going on for as long as it does and its brightest idea -- the climbing piano at the 1:16 mark that’s a brushstroke to paint Tweedy’s words into music (“With the breeze blown through / Pushed up against the sea / Finally back to me”) -- happens once and nevermore.
A Ghost Is Born is a disappointment because “Handshake Drugs”, despite having Tweedy singing instead of whispering, goes on for way too long, a lot of its time spent setting up for its “Karma Police”-like ending.
A Ghost Is Born is a disappointment because “Theologians” offers no reason to listen to it over “Hummingbird”.
A Ghost Is Born is a disappointment because “Less Than You Think”, the penultimate song, exists at all. From Jeff Tweedy himself: “I know ninety-nine percent of our fans won't like that song, they'll say its [sic] a ridiculous indulgence. Even I don't want to listen to it every time I play through the album. […] I wanted to make an album about identity, and within that is the idea of a higher power, the idea of randomness, and that anything can happen, and that we can't control it.” I guess that includes bullshit seeping into albums.
A Ghost Is Born is a disappointment because “The Late Greats”, the last song, wherein Tweedy complains about never being played on the radio (maybe a better melody would help), doesn’t make it worth trekking through “Less Than You Think”.
But broadly speaking, A Ghost Is Born is a disappointment because of how far the band miscalculates its own strengths. I suppose it’s our own damn fault; dubbing the group the “American Radiohead” following the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot put the notion in the band members' heads that they’d have to do something—anything—different for A Ghost Is Born. Tweedy’s response to the dismissal of Jay Bennett, who co-wrote most of the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and played half the instruments on that very instrument-based album, is to increase the guitar and piano. Which meant two things: (1) the colors that Bennett gave Yankee are completely gone, and (2) Tweedy, who sang such affecting words in compelling ways on songs like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, “Jesus, Etc.”, and “Reservations”, is replaced by guitar and piano. Aside from some really good lines on “Wishful Thinking” (e.g. “Is any song worth singing / If it doesn't help”), the songs just frankly aren't there.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the album’s greatest successes are the songs I haven’t mentioned above: the bouncy piano and sprinkled violin of “Hummingbird”, the riff-based “Company in My Back” and “I’m a Wheel”. The latter is especially catchy; it’s hard to deny a hook like “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9! / Once in Germany someone said nein!” that signals the riff. The falsetto-ed “Turn on me”, and idiosyncrasies like “Ummmm” and “AHHHHH!!!!” are also nice touches. All of these, furthermore, closely resemble Summerteeth, the group's 1999 album, in that they’re just straight-forward tunes without the pretensions of being anything else and are relatively fast-paced, immediately standing out on an album full of songs that abuse their benzodiazepine prescriptions.
Happy tenth anniversary, I guess.