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Friday, July 25, 2014 
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Wilco
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A Ghost Is Born
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A Ghost Is Born isn't so much an album about death (as its title would lead you to believe) as it is about an old life changing into something new. Like a big sigh that follows a bigger defeat, Ghost finds solid footing in the act of moving on. Deep disappointment haunts these 11 songs, Wilco's follow-up to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the same way that cautious, questioning patriotism filled Jeff Tweedy's lyrics on that album. If Foxtrot's songs were fractured pop, then Ghost is just plain fracture, a soft and brutal self-examination that pulls no punches even as it manages to remain carefully elliptical.

The most concrete musical touch-point for Ghost is Tweedy's "More Like the Moon" from the 2002 "Kamera" EP, a softly played and gently picked ode to an entropic relationship in which "Everything is breaking/ And it lifts my heart." The understated keyboards that echo behind Tweedy's acoustic guitar, almost like mellow notes coaxed from a slide guitar, create a foundation on which the musical blueprint of Ghost could have easily been erected. The guitar work is busy and mature, a precursor to the very personal statements wrenched from the axes on Ghost, most notably on "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," in which the tweaked solos say more than Tweedy's loose lyrics could about the unhappy clash between childhood and adulthood. But mostly, it's the last line, "To see you as an angel/ Some ghostly work of art," delivered in whispers, that foreshadows the thematic crux of Ghost.

The unquestionable climax of the new record, which comes at the end of the song "Theologians," is a mirror of that line. "No one is ever gonna take my life from me/ I lay it down/ A ghost is born," Tweedy sings, as electric guitars make a noisy entrance and then disappear just as quickly. "I'm a cherry ghost, a cherry ghost, hey I'm a cherry ghost," Tweedy repeats in this death's immediate aftermath, a suddenly quiet and more intimate space. Theologians might not know nothin' about his soul, as the song says, but it's also clear that Tweedy is only beginning to understand it himself. That satisfied "hey" he sings before "I'm a cherry ghost" is a moment of clarity.

But, you know, whatever. Cherry ghosts? Theologians? Weren't Wilco supposed to have saved rock? Or were going to save it? Isn't that what the New York Times said?

Regardless of expectations, that was never on the band's agenda. Leave the rock-saving to, y'know, Ryan Adams or someone, Tweedy seems to say. Wilco instead continue on the rather epic musical journey of deconstruction that started with A.M. and have continued up through Foxtrot. Wilco, more than almost any other band presently recording albums, have a thirst for de- and reconstruction, for snakily winding their way through genres until they emerge clean and new. In Wilco's case, it's more a redesign than a reinvention — the reformatting of a band through membership, instrumentation and experience. Gone is Jay Bennett, the powerful but ultimately unwieldy force that drove back Tweedy's more experimental influences in favor of Moogs and a Wilson Brothers pop sensibility. He's been replaced with avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline, laptopper Mikael Jorgensen and, perhaps most notably, Jim O'Rourke.

O'Rourke, whose talents at the mixing board on Foxtrot were widely lauded as the key to that album's soundscapes, has a more integral role in Wilco this time around, playing on almost every song. Where on Foxtrot one could point out a bit of noise or distortion and say "Dude, that's totally Jimmy O," Ghost doesn't allow for such simple deductions. A song fading restlessly into a minute of noise or a 12-minute drone at the end of a piano lullaby is now just Wilco, the same way that a theremin was just Wilco on Summerteeth or a harmonica was just Wilco on A.M. No Bennett here or Tweedy there or O'Rourke over there — just the sound of a band that knows very well what kind of music it wants to create, and does it well.

On Ghost, there was a decision to take the music in a more understated direction. Rockers like "I'm the Man Who Loves You" give way to "I'm a Wheel," a jokingly balls-out sneerfest with lyrics like "Oh hold on/ You risk exciting me." The vocals sit so high and far away from the body of the song it's almost like a reminder of Wilco's progression: This is not A.M., but, hey, we can still be this kind of band.

The results are more effective when they flex their more streamlined, integrated, and challenging post-Foxtrot muscle. "At Least That's What You Said" appends a four-minute Neil Young guitar extravaganza to a fragile two-minute rumination on an impending divorce. "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" uses power chords as punctuation between lengthy blocks of hammering Krautrock insistence. "Muzzle of Bees" finds melody amidst chaotic, otherworldly guitars.

Yet throughout all the new sounds, Tweedy's searching, pained lyrics create a thread that, like breadcrumbs on a trail, leads you back and around to the album's permeating theme of self-rediscovery. Drugs are bought, relationships end in unanswered questions, souls remain mysterious, ineffective lovers roam America looking for a place to bury memories, and, in the end, Tweedy sings that "there's so much less to this than you think," before slipping headlong into a strenuous, painful drone that leaves, among lots of other things, some room to consider that statement.


by Neal Block




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