CD Review of A Ghost is Born by Wilco

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A Ghost is Born
starhalf starno starno starno star Label: Nonesuch
Released: 2004
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An open letter to Jeff Tweedy:

Dear Jeff,

I’m writing because I am concerned about you and about the current condition of your band. I’ve read much about your alleged bouts with painkillers and various other chemical substances, but I try not to make more of that than there really is to be made. I’ve also read about creative gridlocks, power struggles, and ongoing riffs within the band resulting in a revolving door of membership that I can’t even keep up with. Then we get the new record, A Ghost Is Born.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a departure -- a creative sidestep in musical experimentation. Although it was nowhere near the quality of previous Wilco albums, the critics loved it immediately and the fans learned to like it after countless spins. There were, after all, a handful of truly great songs there.

I fully realize (and even appreciate) the fact that A.M. is now almost a decade old and you’ve clearly migrated far from the conventional alt-country grounds. That’s fine. In fact, I applaud your expansive vision and your willingness to break molds, new and old. I remember thinking that Being There sounded so “different” when it followed up A.M. Little did I know at the time what “different” really sounded like!

And so we’re back to modern day, 2004, with a new lineup (only John Stirratt hanging on from the early days), a rehabbed soul, and a fresh batch of songs to tour the summer away. Only thing is these songs are mediocre, which means, for a man of your seismic talent, they’re bad. That’s right, I said it. A Ghost Is Born is not a good record. As far as I’m concerned, it stands as your first failure in an otherwise splendid career. Take “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” for example. I won’t even ask what the hell that title is about, but I didn’t realize I was listening to a Wilco record when it opened with that Peter Schilling (“Major Tom”) synthetic beat. And those lyrics! “Spiders are filling out tax returns”? What the hell is that? “Hell Is Chrome” starts promisingly enough, with a nice piano riff that recalls The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but it quickly dissipates into a total yawner. “Muzzle of Bees” and “Wishful Thinking” are equally boring, sounding more like scraps from the edit room floor than anything you should have ever released for listening consumption. Then there’s the train wreck that is “Less Than You Think,” which is the longest (and most painful) three minutes of your career.

Alas, this is a Wilco record and you are Jeff Tweedy, so the project is not completely void of substance. The six-minute grinder “At Least That’s What You Said” which introduces A Ghost is good enough to make Neil Young blush. “Hummingbird” is a punchy little Beatles-like ditty that sports a catchy piano lick and even some well-placed orchestral strings. I will be the first to admit that “I’m a Wheel” rocks! Love that song, and just wonder how the hell the same recording session can produce both that great song and “Less Than You Think” in the same sitting.

No doubt the critics will gobble up this new endeavor, Jeff. For some unexplainable reason they tend to admire the bizarre and reward the most unusual. A Ghost Is Born should fill both those categories. All I can hope is that you and whatever band you call Wilco these days are simply on hiatus, taking a well-deserved break from almost 10 years of overachievement. I know you’re touring on a limited basis these next couple months and I look forward to catching you in the clubs. Meanwhile, good luck with your rehab and here’s wishing you’ve not been drained of all inventive juices. Then again, The Stones never really rebounded from Dirty Work….

~Red Rocker