Wilco – A Ghost Is Born

A Ghost Is Born (2004)


1. At Least That’s What You Said 2. Hell Is Chrome 3. Spiders (Kidsmoke) 4. Muzzle Of Bees 5. Hummingbird 6. Handshake Drugs 7. Wishful Thinking 8. Company In My Back 9. I’m A Wheel 10. Theologians 11. Less Than You Think 12. The Late Greats


And you wonder why Pitchfork pisses people off. After hyping Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to infinity and beyond, they came back two years later and had Rob Mitchum give A Ghost Is Born the all-too-predictable “we are the indie tastemakers, feel our backlash, bitch!” score of 6.6. Now, I think Mitchum is generally one of their better writers, but his track record with Wilco is rather dubious. Not only was he the one who stupidly coined the now-infamous phrase “dad rock” in his review of Sky Blue Sky in 2007, but he was clearly clamoring for the hipster world to turn on Tweedy and co. since as far back as 2003 (his “hardy har, everyone else says Wilco sucks, but not me!” routine in his review of More Like The Moon is the height of arrogant doucheosity). So what was his reasoning for knocking A Ghost Is Born down into Mediocrityville? It has too much guitar on it. No shit. In his infinite wisdom, he determined that the electric guitar, the instrument that has almost singlehandedly sustained rock ‘n roll music for 50+ years, is passé and boring, but sitting on a synthesizer for 40 minutes? Now that’s genius! I mean, really, Jimi Hendrix was great and all, but he would’ve really been remembered if he laid down that tired old axe and tried making dubstep. Now that shit is pushing boundaries.

See, that’s exactly the sort of attitude that has made so much indie “rock” suck nowadays. “Electric guitars are for old people, so I’m gonna sit in my basement and make a bunch of bloopy noises on my laptop. Maybe Rob Mitchum will like it!” Listen, do you know why people bake cakes with flour? Because IT WORKS. Try baking a cake without flour, and you tell me if you’re thinking outside the oven or just making a mushy slop of eggs and chocolate that ISN’T ACTUALLY A CAKE. Similarly, people make rock music with electric guitars because IT WORKS. Now, by no means am I saying that they’re necessary ingredients in a rock ‘n roll cake, because more great rock music than I can keep track of has been made without the aid of guitars. But if you’re choosing your tools in the pursuit of making a great rock song, you can be damn sure a Stratocaster is a much better bet than marimbas and a vibraphone. So saying that the mere presence of “classic rock”-styled guitars on a record is a tired exercise is, in short, incredibly stupid.

Because they know how to make rock music, Wilco decided to use guitars to make A Ghost Is Born. The result is a great guitar album – though, in all probability, the quietest, most unlikely great guitar album you’re liable to hear. Indeed, be prepared to keep a finger on the volume knob throughout, and especially right at the beginning. “At Least That’s What You Said” starts out with Tweedy basically whispering about yet more marital woes over a barely audible piano line. Then, about two minutes in, without warning, the volume leaps up by what seems like 80 decibels and kicks into a wildly frenetic, magnificently sloppy, yet somehow tightly choreographed guitar solo that rivals Neil Young’s mastery of his “Down By The River,” “seemingly just slapping at strings, but making it awesome” technique. And who’s playing it? Why, it’s Mr. Tweedy himself, the band’s new de facto lead guitarist since they never bothered to replace Jay Bennett. He’s an unlikely guitar hero, for sure, sounding like an amateurish cross between, as mentioned, Crazy Horse Neil Young and Richard Lloyd of Television, who in fact Tweedy procured a guitar lesson from before recording this album. Man, would I have loved be a fly on the wall for that session (mostly just because I like to hear Richard Lloyd talk – I met him once and he just hilariously rambles on and on and on. He told me that forming a band occurs when “a UFO comes down and zaps you and says, ‘Hey, you gotta be in a band with that guy!’ And you say, ‘But I fuckin’ hate that guy!’” I wonder if Tom Verlaine knows about this metaphor). It must’ve worked wonders, because Tweedy’s guitar work on this album is nothing short of stupendous, ranging from his gnawing, nervous bursts on the 10-minute krautrock jam “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” to his haze-piercing solo on the slow, adult-friendly, piano-based “Hell Is Chrome” to his droning leads during the sun-splashed instrumental climax of the melodic acoustic tune “Muzzle Of Bees.”

But despite all the great guitar, there are no real “guitar rockers” per se, unless you count the fun but dumbed-down, garagey single “I’m A Wheel,” which is every bit as intentionally stupid as “Outtasite” way back on Being There (sample lyric: “Once in Germany someone said nein/One two three four five six seven eight nine”) but nowhere near as catchy. Rather, the proceedings are slow, damp and atmospheric, as if the band is moving through a drug-induced fog – which in fact they were. Tweedy had been hooked on the painkillers he took to manage his chronic migraines for years, and finally entered rehab just before Ghost was released. So you can either see the album’s languid nature as turning the record into a dull, boring slog, or as a compelling artistic choice tied to Tweedy’s struggles with addiction. I opt for the latter, since the songs remain as well written and catchy as ever. Of course, being so persistently goddamned slow means that it’s never gonna get my inner boobs a-jiggling with an much excitement as YHF, as does the existence of “Less Than You Think,” which is 15 minutes of hospital machinery-like synthesizers droning on one note. Tweedy insists it’s an aural representation of his migraines or some shit, but I insist it’s “the Metal Machine Music of synthesizers” and “the sound of my eardrums collapsing in on themselves.” But what does it really matter; I just skip it and pretend it doesn’t exist. No reason to mar my enjoyment of great Wilco songs like the groovy as hell “Handshake Drugs,” which books along on a killer Stirratt bassline, or the shimmering sorta-folk “Company In My Back,” which has a neat intro that makes it sound like the record is skipping. Perhaps the most impressive songwriting efforts are the pair of White Album-worthy piano pop tunes, “Hummingbird” and “Theologians,” both co-written with the then-newest member of Wilco, pianist and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, who resembles a computer science grad student but apparently knows how to put a few chords to good use.

By most measurements, Ghost just about marks of the end of Wilco’s studio golden era. Due to the adoption of the still-running, expanded super lineup for the tour behind this album, the recording of Ghost marks the last time the band had to struggle with limited resources, and the last time they faced any real adversity. But just because “classic” Wilco went out softly doesn’t mean they didn’t go out with a bang.

One Comment

  1. Emily wrote:

    So you know how when you’re in that blurry phase, right on the brink between being awake and being asleep? And you know how you start having weird pre-dream thoughts that seem pretty logical until the awake part of your mind reminds you that that doesn’t make sense? Yeah, try taking a Wilco nap only to have “Less Than You Think” come on right during that on-the-verge-of-sleep moment and see if you ever try taking a Wilco nap again.

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