Monday, June 21, 2004


A Ghost Is Born

Nonesuch Records

Watching Wilco evolve from tradition-bound roots rockers to cutting-edge noise connoisseurs has been a little like watching your goofy nephew grow into a supercilious Ivy Leaguer. You’re proud, but a little put off all the same.

Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s man in charge, was a weaker, if less ponderous, songwriter than his counterpart in Uncle Tupelo, the lefty worker-poet Jay Farrar. When the two splintered into separate bands, Mr. Farrar’s Son Volt still looked to be the stronger of the offshoots.

Then came Wilco’s string of masterpieces: “Being There” (1996), “Summerteeth” (1999) and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2002). Boom, boom, boom — competition over.

Wilco has become critically beloved and a hero to its fans, thanks in part to the blessing in disguise that was Reprise Records’ rejection of “Yankee.” Mr. Farrar, with Son Volt disbanded, has faded into irrelevance.

Under the guidance of avant-garde producer-engineer Jim O’Rourke, Mr. Tweedy found in “Yankee” a challenging new sound to match the absurdist wordplay and often violent introspection of his lyrics — an experimental clutter of electronic hisses and clockwork clanging.

The songs on “A Ghost Is Born” were crafted in the same spirit of distant beauty and chilly elitism as “Yankee,” but with the big difference that their essentials were recorded live as a band, with Mr. O’Rourke as a de facto member, rather than as blips on a computer screen.

Still, Wilco will frustrate the good will of even the most forgiving of listeners at least a few times here.

Two tracks clock in at gratuitous double-digit run times and will send many fingers toward the skip button. “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” an impenetrable word-puzzle about money and voyeurism on private Lake Michigan islands, shifts between an electro-groove reminiscent of Kraftwerk and hard-driving rock; it could have been halved at no cost to the album.

“Less Than You Think,” an angst-y piano ballad (“Your mind’s a machine… its will has never been free”) quietly drifts away into 12 straight minutes of what the liner notes refer to as “loops, filters and synths.” I was thinking more along the lines of “air conditioner.”

These are temporary fits of overindulgence, though; the rest of “Ghost” is tight, assertive and measured.

The key to a successful Wilco album — what separated “A.M.” from the radical shape-shifting that followed — is the quality of hooks added to Mr. Tweedy’s basic stuff. With Mr. Bennett gone, keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, Mr. Bach and Mr. O’Rourke all pitch in some memorable overdubs.

Listen especially for the tackle box of keyboard tones here: the saloon-style sounds on “The Late Greats”; the trebly toy piano that seals the chorus on “Company in My Back”; the spare, descending line that answers Mr. Tweedy’s baritone acoustic on “Muzzle of Bees.”

Mr. Tweedy himself plays a raucous lead guitar on “At Least That’s What You Said” and “Spiders” that will have you thinking he’s auditioning for a spot in Crazy Horse. The noodled phrasing is a wake-up counterpoint to the impersonal sterility Mr. O’Rourke has, unfortunately, brought to the band.

Lyrically, Mr. Tweedy is in familiar territory: nihilism, dysfunction, love, death. On the album’s opening track, someone kisses his “purple black eye” — the same someone who gave it to him. “I’m an ocean, an abyss in motion,” he sings on “Theologians.”

Life’s a bad joke and a sacred thing; Mr. Tweedy can’t decide which. Ambivalence is his milieu, never more so than on “Late Greats,” a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the fictional lost heroes of rock that closes out “Ghost.”

The song might be a send-up of Wilco’s industry fortunes: “The best band will never get signed… You can’t hear ‘em on the radio.”

The gulf between Wilco’s critical acclaim and modest commercial success is a bad joke, too — and for its fans, a sacred thing.

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