Monday, July 7, 2008

A Ghost is Born - Wilco (SUMMER 2008)

A Ghost is Born

Nonesuch Records.

SCQ Rating: 97%

The tale and subsequent myth-making that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot garnered after their split from Warner Records is no longer a story but a saga; the crème of all press kits that turned a record (that had been streamed on Wilco’s website for free) into a classic and Wilco into art reconnoiters. The ruse – Warner Execs giving Wilco their own record, free of charge, and releasing them from their contract only to buy the record back on the band’s terms – was enough to blind every underdog-loving critic from doing their job. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was hailed as a rock record of the 21st Century, and rightly so (seeing as it was 2002 at the time), but its success also set the stage for what would come next: a new Wilco record, only without the David/Goliath backwash. You could almost hear all those newly sober critics creak their armchairs as they reached for red pens.

If the whole label debacle has proven anything, it’s that Wilco grew from the experience instead of simply cashing in. A Ghost is Born is brimming with ideas, equal parts novel and polarizing, that are seamed into a whole that few other bands could manage. The familiar draws to Wilco World are ever-present - all the ache of Tweedy’s desperation, expert musicianship – but intensified; where Yankee Hotel Foxtrot thrived on obscure experimentalism and lyrical fragments, A Ghost is Born is the return of the band, huddled around microphones and creating sounds together. Some of those sounds, like the electronic cut-up that blindsides ‘Handshake Drugs’ into oblivion, remain explicitly borrowed from electronica, but according to Tweedy, the record realigned all the Wilco mates to one studio room. The results are stirring: an eccentric song-cycle of electric rockers, lo-fi acoustics and experimental soundscapes that are all grounded and relatable under Tweedy’s well-honed talents. Even haters who found Tweedy’s new-found love for the guitar solo narcissistic have to appreciate the romantic stomp of ‘At Least That’s What You Said’, a track that opens in sparse piano with Tweedy whispering “I thought it was cute / for you to kiss / my purple black-eye / even though I caught it from you / I still think we’re serious,” before exploding into a bombastic release of thrashing electrics guitars.

If A Ghost is Born has any controversy, it’s because Tweedy booked himself into rehab mere days after the record’s release, citing self-medicating and pills as the issue. His diminishing health is audible on record; although his performances give no indication of trouble ahead, Tweedy’s malcontent is woven into both lyrics and music. No example is more glaringly evident than the twelve minutes of sonic layering that close ‘Less Than You Think’, which Tweedy claims is a recreation of the migraines he experienced throughout recording. His mental well-being was also under duress, as heard in the obsessive, ten minute ‘Spiders’ or the paranoid ‘Company in my Back’. Strange to think that despite these gloomy bits of trivia, A Ghost is Born remains a wonderful summer album, carrying little of the content’s burden and offering countless moments of art-rock beauty.

What makes this album one of SCQ’s all-time favourites is how versatile the material is: its sadness is uplifting, its restlessness is peaceful, its sonic ambitions are all over the place. My first taste of the album, ‘Hell is Chrome’, sent a shiver from its tastefully upbeat piano-trot. The ivories suddenly dropped into a jazz-torn heartbeat, where the electric sears in, crisp and mournful, breaking this peaceful dawn like a day’s first carhorn. Underappreciated but well-advanced from its celebrated predecessor, A Ghost is Born is Wilco’s crowning achievement; a record to fall in love with.

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