Are you ready for more record release drama? I’m not referring to delays for personal and/or label snafus: please leave all gossip and scuttlebutt at the door. I’m talking about the kind of drama that ensues when a seasoned band with several critically acclaimed albums (and a rising level of national attention) releases their Next Record. Oh the burdens this album will be asked to shoulder! Let’s have a look at the interested parties:
No Depressionites (the Disciples): Still hoping for a return to “Screen Door”, these folks await the second coming of twang. They approach new interpretations of musical doctrine with some trepidation.
Indie Hipsters (revisionists): When Jay Bennett and, later, Jim O’Rourke, threw new spins on the orthodoxy, these cats were ecstatic. Though they were content with just Being There, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot gave them a glimpse of the light to which they’d like to get even closer.
Record Industry Suits (money-lenders): Always attentive to the changing whims of the masses, they’re anxious to see if the flock will follow Wilco across boundaries and into new territories. They’ll be watching this one closely, even if they don’t listen closely.
Add to this mix the Critics (whatever analogous entity offends most), the Recent Converts, Radio Programmers, and even you, Dear Reader. Surely you have something you’ve been searching for — will you find it in A Ghost Is Born? All of these expectations could crush a band (and have) trying to follow up a successful album, resulting in whipping, flaying, nailing, and much anguish. Fortunately, Wilco chieftain Jeff Tweedy is not Jim Caviezel, and you’re not Mel Gibson, are you? No? Thought so. Regardless, if any of these factions weighed on Wilco’s collective mind during the creation of their latest, the music gives no indication of suffering. The music shrugs off expectations like I’m about to shrug off my Passion of the Christ metaphor.
It’s appropriate that the album is titled A Ghost Is Born because it rests firmly between the cradle and grave as the band’s most mature musical statement. Every aspect of the project is an improvement on the last. On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Tweedy began to revel in the sounds of words, choosing them for their impressionistic value as often as for their literal meanings. The results were hit or miss. For every prescient and powerful line, there was a self-consciously arty, college workshop bomb. But there are no American aquarium drinkers assassinating down Ghost‘s avenue. The closest we get to a wince is a “cherry ghost” on the pristine “Theologians”. I might never know what a cherry ghost is, but at least it sounds delicious.
Elsewhere, the lyrics are sophisticated, often direct and daring at once. Tweedy once waxed clever on 1999’s Summerteeth, singing “I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me”. On Ghost‘s revelatory opener, “At Least That’s What You Said”, the singer doesn’t just flirt with violent themes: “I thought it was cute for you to kiss my purple black eye even though I caught it from you.” On the next track, “Hell Is Chrome”, the lyrics describe a bizarre encounter with the devil in language as straight-forward as a children’s book. The lack of guile makes the song even creepier, and eerily touching. Seduced by a metallic Satan, the song’s narrator pauses at the end to smell the roses, “The air was crisp like sunny late winter days, a springtime yawning high in the haze, and I felt like I belonged”, before crooning “Come with me”. This evocation is scarier and more complex than any death metal examination of blood, fire, and horns.
Just as Tweedy’s words have gotten sleeker and more efficient, so has the music. At first listen, the record sounds less experimental than YHF. Except for a couple moments of indulgence (some white noise at the end of “Less Than You Think”, etc.) Ghost has considerably fewer extraneous bleeps and blurps than its predecessor. Every sound here feels purposeful. The brunt of the work is done by the primary instruments played by the band. The arrangements are less “experimental” on the surface, without 14 Casio’s and a cricket playing the oud.
However, it’s the song structures, proggish virtuosic playing, and vocal delivery that break with past incarnations of Wilco. Like the Tweedy/Kotche/O’Rourke collaboration Loose Fur, the songs stretch out organically, letting both band and audience breathe in the spaces inside. Most of the songs break the four-minute mark, and two exceed 10 minutes in length (“Less Than You Think” and the shuffling “Spiders”). But a couple of songs are punchy, spirited, and quick, particularly the recent live favorite “I’m a Wheel” and the winking closer “The Late Greats”.
You might wonder what expectations I had prior to listening to this Internet stream in order to enjoy this album with so much… fervor. Funny thing is, I can’t remember. A longtime fan of the band, I tried hard not to dread doomsday or cross my fingers for rock and roll salvation. As much as I could, I tried to clear my mind and ended up surprised and delighted enough to last several lifetimes.