A Ghost is Born
our score: 3.5 out of 5.0
The hoopla surrounding Wilco's 2002 release, the critically acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, did quite a bit for the band - most notably throwing them into the spotlight of more casual music fans than they had acquired through their previous releases. Whereas Wilco (and to an even greater extent, Uncle Tupelo) had existed through their alt.country roots fan base, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot almost completely abandoned their country-influenced sounds of past records - and the ballyhoo regarding their dismissal from label, Reprise, the fallout with Jay Bennett, and all the rest of the events chronicled in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart transformed Wilco from a bunch of good ol' boys making rock records into poster boys for the indie music scene. Their story was the epitome of all that is wrong with major label music.
It can be argued, therefore, that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot really wasn't as great as an album as it was made out to be - especially as great of an album as it suddenly seemed to be to everyone once year-end lists came out. Originally somewhat glossed over upon its initial release, except for people who had already been Wilco fans (who gobbled it up immediately), it wasn't until the full story of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came about that the true championing of the band began.
This being said, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a great album, though at times it was perhaps a bit too self-indulgent for its own good. A Ghost is Born, on the other hand, finds the band (now down to just two of its original members) fluttering about in a mash of self-indulgence and rather directionless sound. It had been heavily reported that Jeff Tweedy (who has a history of migraines) was battling an addiction to painkillers throughout the recording of A Ghost is Born, and this addiction comes through quite a bit on the recording.
In its past, Wilco has always had one core assett on its side, and that was the songwriting prowess of Jeff Tweedy. From his early days in Uncle Tupelo, through A.M., Being There, Summerteeth and (to a bit lesser extent), Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Tweedy has continued to write artful, yet meaningful lyrics that have been complimented tremendously by their accompanying music. On A Ghost is Born, however, Tweedy's songwriting is sparse at best with lines like "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" being the norm, rather than the exception.
Still, there are instances where glimpses of Tweedy's past reputation as one of this generation's better songwriters do peek their heads out. "Wishful Thinking" finds Tweedy returning to form with lines like "fill up your mind with all it can know / don't forget that your body can let it all go / fill up your mind with all it can know / 'cause what would love be without wishful thinking?" Likewise, "Theologians" showcases Tweedy in one of his better songs on any past record, utilizing his penchant for lyrical puns quite well: "illiterati lumen fedei / god is with us everyday / the illiterate light / is with us every night."
The biggest drawback with A Ghost is Born, however, tends to be its lack of something. There's a bit of heart that seems to be missing here. It's a severely disjointed work, and sonically it's ended up being much more The Jeff Tweedy Experience than a Wilco record. The monotonous drones of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and "Less Than You Think" may work for some who are interested in delving into Tweedy's nightmarish headaches, but as individual songs they just plain don't cut it.
In much the same way, it's glaringly obvious when Tweedy takes over guitar duties. His off-soloing style was spattered here and there in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the tracks on The Minus Five's Down With Wilco record where Tweedy handled guitar were no different. Here they're almost omnipresent, especially in the droners.
Then again, A Ghost is Born does have its major successes, although they tend to be few and far between. "Company in My Back" has a tremendously infectious hook, and "Theologians" is the best Beatles-inspired piano track Wilco've done yet. "I'm a Wheel" is Wilco at their most punk rock yet, and the opener "At Least That's What You Said" is one of the saddest happy songs about domestic abuse ever laid onto tape.
What's most disappointing here isn't A Ghost is Born itself. Because honestly, it's still a damn fine record. The big problem is the fact that Wilco just are capable of so much more. The loss of Jay Bennet is sorely unimistakable, as A Ghost is Born really ends up being more of a rebirth of sorts for Tweedy. As much of a group effort this record has been lauded to as, its really about Tweedy, his addictions and his depressions. It's a hopeless little record, and those willing to put the investment into it will likely find solace in Tweedy's recorded soul. But those looking for redemption (or just a plain old fun "Wilco" tune) will have to continue searching.
liked A Ghost is Born...
1. At Least That's What You Said
2. Hell Is Chrome
3. Spiders (Kidsmoke)
4. Muzzle of Bees
6. Handshake Drugs
7. Wishful Thinking
8. Company in My Back
9. I'm a Wheel
11. Less Than You Think
12. The Late Greats