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Wilco, ‘A Ghost Is Born’ (Nonesuch)

Wilco ringleader Jeff Tweedy is famous for spinning rural Americana into dreamy art rock, and for turning record-label wrangling into critical gold. And now, after packing himself off to rehab in March, he’s also famous 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. Because if you’re stone sober, much of it sounds like the “difficult” Wilco album that Warner Bros. warned you about.

Not literally, of course. It was 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that Warner/Reprise declined to release on aesthetic grounds. Which seems insane in retrospect, because as “difficult” albums go, Yankee–eventually released, to rapturous acclaim, by Warner subsidiary Nonesuch– was a pretty easy listen. Sure, there were long, goopy outros, eccentric production, and almost none of the alt-country signifiers that made Wilco semi-famous. But listeners still fell quickly and obsessively in love with the album’s magic-hour glow, its broken-hearted wobble, its gauzy 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 run second to weird sound gestures, soft-rock murmur, and aural pocket lint. Co-songwriter Jay Bennett–canned during theYankee sessions–is conspicuous in his absence; he seems to have taken most of the band’s roots-rawk grit with him. Drummer Glenn Kotche and bassist John Stirratt return, but the keyplayer here, aside from Tweedy, is producer Jim O’Rourke, an avant-garde gadfly with a reputation as an enabler of inaccessibility. The album feels like Tweedy and O’Rourke’s baby, and a cranky one at that.

On the opener, “At Least That’s What You Said,” the band backs into a gentle piano melody, as Tweedy mumbles, “I thought it was cute for you to kiss a purple black eye /Even though I got it from you.” A Sahara-dry guitar flickers; then, at the two-minute mark, the song breaks into a Crazy Horse–ish lope, as if they’ve warmed up the engine just to coast downhill. “Muzzle of Bees” is a lovely finger-picked ode to rough couplehood; “Hell Is Chrome” is a devilish come-on, as earthy and sweet as a “sunny late-winter day,” which is when Tweedy says he met ol’ Lucifer. And our man is still Midwestern enough to sweeten the excellent kraut-rock jam “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” with a fat heartland-rock refrain. He even remembers to bring the dumb on “I’m a Wheel,” two and a half minutes of Pavementy rock where the most profound lyric is “ummmm….”

But what with the whole rehab thing, you gotta wonder: IsGhost the second-hoariest of AOR clichés, the Challenging Follow-Up to the Surprise Hit Album, or the biggest cliché of them all, the Record Made Whilst Hopped Up on Goofballs? Maybe it’s both, which would explain why “Handshake Drugs” starts out as a jaunt downtown to meet a connection and turns into a pressures-of-fame lament. “It’s okay for you to say what you want from me,” Tweedy grouses. “I believe that’s the only way for me to be.” And then there’s the 12 minutes of tedious amplifier buzz at the end of the otherwise pleasantly concise”Less Than You Think.”

Tweedy doesn’t sound any less sincere than he usually does–sedated or not, he can still feel, which may be the album’s theme as well as its saving grace. But on too much ofGhost, his musings cross the line between engagingly complex and willfully obscure. No wonder Tweedy tacked on “The Late Greats”–a straight-ahead tune that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 1996’s Being There–as the last track. After all, you don’t want the follow-up to a critical smash to end on the line “There’s so much less to this than you think.”