Scavenger Haunt: Wilco Fumble for Beauty

WRITTEN BY
Joe Gross

Wilco
A Ghost Is Born
Nonesuch

Wilcoringleader Jeff Tweedy is famous for spinning rural Americana intodreamy art rock, and for turning record-label wrangling into criticalgold. And now, after packing himself off to rehab in March, he's alsofamous for getting hooked on pills. So maybe Wilco's fifth album, A Ghost Is Born,should be taken with a grain of salt and a couple of Vicodin. Becauseif you're stone sober, much of it sounds like the "difficult" Wilcoalbum that Warner Bros. warned you about.

Not literally, of course. It was 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrotthat Warner/Reprise declined to release on aesthetic grounds. Whichseems insane in retrospect, because as "difficult" albums go, Yankee--eventuallyreleased, to rapturous acclaim, by Warner subsidiary Nonesuch--was apretty easy listen. Sure, there were long, goopy outros, eccentricproduction, and almost none of the alt-country signifiers that madeWilco semi-famous. But listeners still fell quickly and obsessively inlove with the album's magic-hour glow, its broken-hearted wobble, itsgauzy topicality. Gently sifting American ashes, Yankee wove together dread and nostalgia with stately piano and poetic, neurotic guitar.

There are flashes of Yankee's shimmer on Ghost,but the album is more elusive, more disjointed. Languid melodies runsecond to weird sound gestures, soft-rock murmur, and aural pocketlint. Co-songwriter Jay Bennett--canned during the Yankeesessions--is conspicuous in his absence; he seems to have taken most ofthe band's roots-rawk grit with him. Drummer Glenn Kotche and bassistJohn Stirratt return, but the key player here, aside from Tweedy, isproducer Jim O'Rourke, an avant-garde gadfly with a reputation as anenabler of inaccessibility. The album feels like Tweedy and O'Rourke'sbaby, and a cranky one at that.

On the opener, "At Least That's What You Said," the bandbacks into a gentle piano melody, as Tweedy mumbles, "I thought it wascute for you to kiss a purple black eye / Even though I got it fromyou." A Sahara-dry guitar flickers; then, at the two-minute mark, thesong breaks into a Crazy Horse-ish lope, as if they've warmed up theengine just to coast downhill. "Muzzle of Bees" is a lovelyfinger-picked ode to rough couplehood; "Hell Is Chrome" is a devilishcome-on, as earthy and sweet as a "sunny late-winter day," which iswhen Tweedy says he met ol' Lucifer. And our man is still Midwesternenough to sweeten the excellent kraut-rock jam "Spiders (Kidsmoke)"with a fat heartland-rock refrain. He even remembers to bring the dumbon "I'm a Wheel," two and a half minutes of Pavementy rock where themost profound lyric is "ummmm?."But what with the whole rehab thing, you gotta wonder: Is Ghostthe second-hoariest of AOR clichés, the Challenging Follow-Up to theSurprise Hit Album, or the biggest cliché of them all, the Record MadeWhilst Hopped Up on Goofballs? Maybe it's both, which would explain why"Handshake Drugs" starts out as a jaunt downtown to meet a connectionand turns into a pressures-of-fame lament. "It's okay for you to saywhat you want from me," Tweedy grouses. "I believe that's the only wayfor me to be." And then there's the 12 minutes of tedious amplifierbuzz at the end of the otherwise pleasantly concise"Less Than YouThink."Tweedy doesn't sound any less sincere than he usually does--sedated ornot, he can still feel, which may be the album's theme as well as its saving grace. But on too much of Ghost,his musings cross the line between engagingly complex and willfullyobscure. No wonder Tweedy tacked on "The Late Greats"--a straight-aheadtune that wouldn't have sounded out of place on 1996's Being There--asthe last track. After all, you don't want the follow-up to a criticalsmash to end on the line "There's so much less to this than you think."

Grade: B

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