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A Ghost is Born
Posted: June 22,
If you're a true believer when you die and there's no place for your
soul to go, what happens then? What becomes of your spirit while your
corporeal remains decay? Perhaps a ghost is born, confused and
frustrated by an afterlife that's not what he or she expected. Or, to
quote Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, something that's considerably "less than you
think." A Ghost is Born, Wilco's fifth album, challenges putting
all of our everlasting eggs in one theological basket. The
repercussions, after all, are fairly dramatic, whether one's faith is
rewarded or was ill-spent on a belief system that simply doesn't pay off
with eternally enriching dividends. At the end of the day, we have each
other, for better or worse, and, perhaps, that's where the majority of
our faith and energy should be directed.
A Ghost is Born is neither the most musically satisfying Wilco
album nor the most lyrically impressive. It is, however, the strangest,
most intentionally difficult (in terms of sequencing) record the
adventurous Chicago-based rock band has made. It's not a sequel to
Foxtrot, though many elements of that rigorously assembled mosaic
remain (renowned avant-rock producer Jim O'Rourke mixed both albums).
There are traces of Summerteeth's dark pop (the wonderful
"Hummingbird," which sounds terribly out of place amidst the meatier
assemblage) and even pre-Being There acoustic toss-offs (the
closing "The Late Greats," which champions the greatest imaginary band
ever). But mostly, A Ghost is Born is a collection of muscular,
guitar-driven rock songs that wrestle with questions of faith (in one's
self, in one's God, in one's relationships, in one's future -- well, you
get the idea). Though its sum may be less than its parts, that doesn't
mean there aren't some very good parts to hear.
Leroy Bach's delicate piano contrasts nicely with Jim O'Rourke's
discordant chords on "At Least That's What You Said," a slow-cooked
opener that deals with a couple's post-fight fallout. Here, lead
singer/songwriter Tweedy gestures back and turns the tables on his male
counterpart from Summerteeth's "She's a Jar" ("You know she begs me /
Not to hit her") with the telling lines "I thought it was cute / For you
to kiss / My purple black-eye / Even though I caught it from you." A
more polished, less hangdog version of "Handshake Drugs" (which
originally appeared on the More Like the Moon EP last year) looks
to others for approval ("Exactly what do you want me to be?"). "Wishful
Thinking" sporting some moodily effective organ, rhetorically asks "Is
any song worth singing / If it doesn't help?"
That kind of doubt permeates A Ghost is Born, with Tweedy
saving his most penetrating questions for matters of faith. "Hell Is
Chrome" examines the lesser angels of our nature, finding comfort in a
company of devilish hosts ("I was welcomed with open arms / I received
so much help in every way"). The near eleven-minute "Spiders (Kidsmoke),"
powered by a hypnotic, Krautrock-indebted "motorik" beat, ponders
salvation for the apathetic adherent ("I'll be in my bed / You can be
the stone / That raises from the dead / And carries us all home").
Elsewhere, Tweedy confronts "Theologians" ("They don't know nothing /
About my soul") and their presumptive attempts at teasing reason from
faith ("Where I'm going you cannot come").
The penultimate "Less Than You Think" starts off as a beautiful,
three-minute piano-based charmer ("It's almost gone / The night is
dissolving / In a cup God lifts to toast the lightning") that deftly
addresses the issue of a personal relationship with a higher power as
opposed to a formal religious doctrine's interpretation of the supreme
being. Unfortunately, the last twelve minutes of the song are filled
with noise-for-noise's-sake noodling that sounds as if Jim O'Rourke
mixed it at the bottom of Lake Michigan. If this was the last track on
the album, it wouldn't be so bad, but it's intentionally been sequenced
to subvert the listener's expectations of what and how an album should
be constructed. Point well taken, but it severely breaks the flow of the
record when you have to manually jump to the next song.
Despite being one of the weaker albums Wilco has released, A Ghost
is Born is nonetheless the most fascinating. It tackles deeper
issues and plays with dissonant noise in an aggressive and daring
(though not entirely successful) manner. As a concept album, it falls
short of its mark by including too much unrelated filler (the insipid
"Company In My Back"). Musically, it's messily all over the place,
though it sports some of the best (if indulgent) guitar work the band's yet recorded,
and Tweedy's lyrics, despite flashes of brilliance, are mostly
obvious and uninspired. Chroniclers of Wilco's career may well look back
on A Ghost is Born as a key, transitory point in the band's
history. Whether that transition is toward a heavenly ascent or hellish
decline remains to be written.
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