Wilco A Ghost is Born

[Nonesuch; 2004]

Rating: 5/5

Styles: rock and roll dude
Others: Jim O’Rourke, Sonic Youth, My Morning Jacket, Uncle Tupelo

It's nearly impossible to contain Wilco in one genre; from A.M. to A Ghost is Born, the band has effortlessly combined and crossed musical styles, shrugging off any labels we've attempted to attach to them. It's been almost two years since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot wowed critics and fans with its delicately-textured beauty. Many have since speculated whether Tweedy and his band could create a record to rival it. How could the band members possibly outdo themselves in light of such accolades? The answer for the band was to move in a completely different direction.

A Ghost is Born would at first seem to be a confusing answer for fans. It opens with "At Least That's What You Said," a highly personal, moody piano ballad that transitions into full band with abrasive guitars and rapid-fire drum segments. "Hell is Chrome" then opens up as lively piano with quiet drums that would feel appropriate on a Billy Joel record. After easily settling into the space this track offers, the 10-minute kraut-rock version of "Spiders" that follows is subversive with its hypnotic beats and skronky guitars. And so the disparateness continues throughout the record, preventing unity and upsetting our comfort as listeners. It is very significant though, that the literal centerpiece of this album, "Handshake Drugs," makes sense of it all with the simple question: "Exactly what do you want me to be?" Both the music and the lyrics on this album imply the central theme of identity. The effect is that listeners are just as confused as the album's persona -- we feel insecure, like the narrator, to find out that the devil is not red, but chrome. The protagonist's goal in "Hummingbird" is to be an echo, yet the schism between what he wants to be and what he is hits in a whirlwind of heartbreaking realization.

But it's not all heartbreaking. The raucous instrumental spaces of "At Least That's What You Said" and "Spiders" provide ample time to adjust to changing identities in a way that life doesn't, and obligatory rocker "I'm a Wheel" kicks up the fun a few notches. "Company in my Back" and "Theologians" are easy shufflers that lead to infectious head bobbing of frat-boy-at-Grateful-Dead-show caliber. Capping off "Less Than You Think" is approximately nine minutes of fuzzy, crescendo-ing white noise that's hard not to skip past. Tweedy predicted that 99% of Wilco fans wouldn't appreciate this, and he's probably right. Whether intentionally or not, ex-pal Jay Farrar showed us how to be interactive with last year's Terroir Blues; skipping past all the "experimental" tracks got annoying. At least on A Ghost is Born we're only skipping once.

Unlike the first three Wilco albums and even more than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born requires careful listening. The musicianship is stronger than ever -- aided by producer Jim O'Rourke on all but one track -- and no creative talent is left untapped. However, the disparateness of all the songs will likely seem strange to fans initially, only to be softly revealed in subtle beauty through concentration in successive listens.

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

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