A Ghost Is Born


Nonesuch Records, 2004


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


One of the biggest challenges any artist faces is following up success. Your audience might have been wowed last time, but what have you done to impress us lately?

Wilco's 2002 disc Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was one of the great albums of the young century, an album of experimentalist alt-country that's bizarre enough to puzzle, grounded enough to move, and clever enough to delight an audience prepared to accept its quirks. Its rescue from the major-label dungeon and issuance as an acclaimed independent album is one of the great music industry David-and-Goliath stories of recent years.

A Ghost Is Born is a sequel of sorts, another album of odd and beautiful Jeff Tweedy compositions that materialize out of the sonic fog like apparitions to dance in our imaginations and then disappear again. The ruling aesthetic is simple; the rules don't exist for Wilco anymore. If a song sounds right played a little sloppy -- as many of these do -- leave it. If the mood strikes and the band feels like tacking a 12-minute droning ambient-feedback section onto an otherwise fairly inconsequential three-minute song (e.g. the ironically-titled "Less Than You Think"), go for it. For better or for worse -- and there will inevitably be partisans on both sides of that one -- convention is a straightjacket this band has left behind

My vote is for "better." Otherwise how could we ever be treated to endless dreamscapes like the shambling, magnificent "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," the only song I have ever heard that could best be described as psychedelic progressive Americana. Almost eleven minutes long, it goes through multiple transformations that include trance-y electronica, rumbly/noodly country-rock chording, hallucinogenic lyrics ("Spiders are singing in the salty breeze / Spiders are filling out tax returns / Spinning out webs of deductions and melodies / On a private beach in Michigan"), a driving rock and roll chorus that has no words until the very last repeat, and a pair of psychotic-break guitar solos that would raise Jimi Hendrix's eyebrows. To be honest, I'm not quite sure how this will hold up after 20 listenings, but after four, it sounds pretty damned awesome.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Truth be told, Wilco can be a bit frightening to listen to. There's an aura of lunatic genius about Tweedy, the sense that you're in the presence of the kind of unhinged musical savant who is half brilliant and half alarming. There are moments of quiet, incomparable beauty in tracks like the pastoral ballad "Muzzle Of Bees," the wonderfully textured "Company In My Back," and the sad, steady-building, ultimately cathartic opener "At Least That's What You Said." And then there are moments of swirling, atonal guitar feedback that made me grin and cringe and talk to my speakers like a drunk at a bad movie, saying: "Dude, get a grip!"

"Handshake Drugs," despite containing one of the aforementioned feedback-laden "solos," is one of this album's finer constructions, a gently rollicking tune whose sweet sing-song melody line carries a faint echo of YHF's charming "Heavy Metal Drummer." An intriguing choice for a song that appears to be about Tweedy's well-publicized pill addiction… three minutes of pretty followed by a two-minute nervous breakdown.

A word about the writing. Many of these tracks are once again somewhat abstract poems that defy deciphering ("Hide your soft skin; your sorrow is sunshine; listen to my eyes / They are hissing radiator tunes" goes one verse). Nonetheless, there are some great lines here: "What would we be without wishful thinking?" "The sun gets passed from sea to sea." "When the devil came / He was not red / He was chrome and he said / Come with me." Madness and genius have never been far apart, and rarely closer than in the studio with Wilco.

A key part of what made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot a great album was its rock and roll heart. Yes, the album had a distinct alt-country/Americana tinge, but its essential attitude was all rock and roll, as in "Screw convention and screw you - we're doing this our way, and you can either get it or get off the bus. NOW." A Ghost Is Born carries that attitude on with admirable determination. And while the approach isn't quite as fresh this time -- how could it be? -- it remains compelling in the hands of an artist as talented and apparently fearless as Jeff Tweedy.

Rating: A-

User Rating: A


a perfect album to follow up YHF. Jeff Tweedy shows his underrated guitar talent on this one. There are as many good songs as YHF imo.

© 2004 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Nonesuch Records, and is used for informational purposes only.