Review Summary: Jeff Tweedy is upset...
A Ghost is Born is a source of contention among both diehard Wilco fans and casual listeners alike. It’s one of those albums that’s either loved or hated, without much of a middle-ground of opinion. As one might guess based on the rating, I fall into the love camp. The album marks a turning point for Wilco: songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett had been fired, guitar virtuoso Nels Cline had not yet joined the group, and the band faced the task of following up their most famous and critically acclaimed album, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. While the band itself was in a more functional place, as frontman and lead songwriter Jeff Tweedy and Bennett were no longer forced to deal with one another, at the time Tweedy was battling an addiction to pain killers and in fact had to enter rehab shortly before the release of the album, actually pushing back it’s release date.
Tweedy’s troubles show through on A Ghost is Born. He plays lead guitar on the album, a new position for him, and you can feel his frustration both with his guitar playing abilities and addiction struggles burst forth during his squealing, powerful, almost vengeful solos. On the incredible album opener, At Least That’s What You Said, you can particularly hear him straining against the limiting bonds of his guitar talent. The song itself begins quietly with just Tweedy singing at a piano, but it explodes around the two minute mark, with all the instruments pounding in unison and it slowly dissolves into a spectacular guitar freak out. Overall it’s a brilliant opener to the album, and one of the band’s best songs. Similarly brilliant is Hell Is Chrome, a slower track where Tweedy takes on the role of the devil, asking listeners to “come with” him. Interestingly, the song implies that he hates cleanliness and order, as exemplified by glistening chrome. Next up is the difficult Spiders (Kidsmoke). The 10 minute song suffers from its length, as it takes too long to get going, and makes the build up to the powerful, rocking parts of the song simply too drawn out. At same time, once it hits its stride, it's as catchy and powerful as anything on the album. Tweedy was definitely looking make a long song out it, but you can't help but wonder how good it would have been at half the length. However the title of longest song on the album belongs to the infamous track Less Than You Think. Known for being the song that Tweedy himself often skips, it is comprised of a pretty, mournful piano ballad, followed by approximately 12 minutes of ear destroying ambient textures and random synth noises. The electronic section is by far the most experimental stretch of any Wilco song, ever, and symbolizes something about Tweedy’s addiction and migraines. In case if I haven’t made it abundantly clear, the song, at least the ambient section, is a massive misstep and I honestly can’t even imagine why the other members of the band were okay with it being put on the album.
But, back to what the album does best, which is virtually everything else. Hummingbird is a joyous track, though one with depressing, but poignant lyrics: “his goal in life was to be an echo/the kind of sound floats around and back down, like a feather.” It, Handshake Drugs, and (the underrated) Theologians are all highly catchy, exuberant songs. They showcase what Wilco does best: poppy, folky or even experimental music, with a layer of emotion smoothed on over the top. A Ghost is Born is often dismissed as boring or dry, but those who do so do it at their peril, as they are missing the passion that the album has. Theologians is the perfect example of what people miss: it’s a powerful, energizing song, and when the heavier guitar strikes in late in the track, it’s hard not caught up in the potent vigor of Wilco firing on all cylinders. However, the album also does restrained beauty, as shown on Muzzle of Bees, a light, largely acoustic track, but one that is given a layer of complexity by the dissonant, droning electric guitar at the end.
Overall, the album has a lyrical undercurrent of disillusionment and being held back; on the whole, they are some of the best Tweedy has written. On Handshake Drugs, he sings “I looked like someone I used to know” and asks “exactly what do want me to be?” On Wishful Thinking, another quite song, Tweedy says “fill up your mind with all that you know/don’t forget that your body will all let it go,” a sly reference to death, a theme which makes an appearance on a number other songs as well, including Theologians and Company In My Back, on which he shouts “I will always die” numerous times at the climax of the track.
While A Ghost is Born is filled with catchy songs, at the same time, it’s not always easy album to get into. It’s often dismissed as sloppy or inconsistent, but given time, I’ve found it’s almost universally excellent. In many ways it’s a more raw album than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but it’s also one which has perhaps more replay value, as there is much to discover, as well as enjoy. One can tell that the making of this album must have been some sort of cathartic emotional release for Tweedy: the occasional bursts of noise, and the complex, if carefully listened to, lyrics paint a picture of a man falling apart. Through and through, Jeff Tweedy owns this album, and while Wilco has put out some stellar music since it’s release, A Ghost is Born is the band’s last great album, a flawed, though excellent showcase of songwriting and emotional instability, and an album worth truly exploring more than just a couple times.