On A Ghost Is Born, Wilco skip the Radiohead Americana that fans sensed the band heroically ascended to on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That was the Chicago outfit’s previous 2000 album—released with electronic flourishes, high dusty drama, and muted self-importance regarding what was, at bottom, barely newsworthy everyday industry wrangling. Instead, this time out Wilco get real. Like gourmets hungry for truck stop fare, Wilco fall into a studio—officially “New York City’s oldest independent studio,” according to the band’s current bio—with co-producer (and YHF engineer) Jim O’Rourke, the twisty Chicago indie-instrumental guru with Sonic Youth cred, and let things happen, develop, evolve, live, rip, etc. “We valued the idea of presenting ourselves and our music as humanly as possible in an artificial world,” Wilco main man Jeff Tweedy explains, to quote once more from an interesting bio in which he confesses that he now realizes that “it’s OK that [he doesn’t] sound like Jimmy Page.” The vibe is vacuum tubes and old mics. Missing are any auras of apparently disturbing artificial phenomena, such as computers or new airport design or Led Zeppelin.
The result is a better album than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A Ghost Is Born is first and foremost a sensibility album, a sonic demonstration of a worldview. Wilco’s ideas are unremarkable, but are worked out with intelligence and striking conception. And as it happens, the new organic emphasis tables some of Wilco’s lamer stylistic obsessions. Their disinclination now to involve themselves with English or European beats and atmospheres that they neither understand nor vibrantly misunderstand represents one advantage. Yet just as importantly, the new Wilco focus dulls the place of Brian Wilson’s music in Wilco’s.
This is excellent, because the rinky-dink Americana/alt-country apprehension of Wilson—the delusional idea that classic Beach Boys had less to do with a genius instance of Hollywood glamour than some sort of fanciful homey suburban folk—has always been plainly wrong, and Wilco have been chief offenders in perpetrating the hoax. Loads better for them to proceed, as they do on A Ghost Is Born, as though they can’t get enough Neil Young. Wilco understand his eccentrically expressive ways with vacuum-tube reality. They don’t willfully imagine Young as Bing Crosby, as much of Americana/alt-country has viewed Wilson as Hank Williams with arpeggios. Moreover, on the several creeping ballads such as “At Least That’s What You Said” and “Theologians” that Tweedy almost mumbles, Wilco also exhibit a decent grip on Sister Lovers–period Alex Chilton. Their version can’t communicate the Big Star protagonist’s pharmaceutical nightmares, yet it still sears.
In its deliberate, dug-in way, the whole album reveals a smart game plan. It’s just that, so extremely unlike Radiohead, Wilco seem sheepish not only about new airport design but also about how such undertakings’ sexy flash of ideas can impress and entertain. Yet obviously Wilco value that sort of pizzazz. The way the album begins with three pieces that artfully fuck around in an unbound rock-band manner—”At Least,” plus “Hell Is Chrome” and the magnificently obnoxious “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”—refusing hard positions on melodies or textures or composition, recalls how Quentin Tarantino says he ramblingly wrote the first part of Jackie Brown to allow audiences to hang out with the characters before much happened narratively. When Tweedy sings “Handshake Drugs,” a song Paul Simon might have shined up years ago into a hit single, he commemorates saxophones in the lyrics but doesn’t score his track with them and, in general, successfully makes tuneful music act like smoke. From the adolescent guitar outbursts on “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” to the endless, wobbly note Tweedy sustains near the end of the album, A Ghost Is Born is full of tricks—very subtle, very ghostly, very buried tricks. It’s one reason why Wilco’s album will become, among other things, prime music to fill out serious college applications to.