Happy Wilco Wednesday!
A Ghost is Born was released to the public in June of 2004. The main critical response was something along the lines of “It’s fine, but it’s not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot“. Wilco were faced with a conundrum: How do you follow up your subversive, avant garde masterpiece? There were other issues too. The band had kicked out guitarist Jay Bennett. Multi-instrumentalist LeRoy Bach was on his way out too. The band had famously been kicked off their label. Jeff Tweedy, who had battled migraines and anxiety attacks his whole life, was now addicted to pain killers and checked himself into rehab halfway through the tour promoting the album. Amidst all of this, Ghost is actually pretty great, and provides a snapshot of a band trying to figure out how to be a band again.
Ghost is a quiet album. It’s full of hushed whispers and barely audible sounds. It’s lonely and introspective. It’s inward looking, right up until the point that it’s not. It becomes loud and brash and unhinged. That juxtaposition is what makes it great. The opener, At Least That’s What You Said, starts as a quiet plea to a woman who is walking out the door. She’s leaving Jeff for good and he quietly begs her to stay. Then the song kind of stops and a loud, scratchy guitar breaks in accompanied by a thunderous piano and drums and gives us 2 minutes of guitar rock glory. The song, much like the rest of the album, is both a quiet plea and an enraged scream. Tweedy wanted the end of the song to sound like a panic attack.
The biggest source of controversy on the album is Less Than You Think, the penultimate song on the record. It’s a beautiful love song for about 3 minutes. Then there’s about 10 minutes of synthesized feedback. Pure noise. No melody, no structure, just noise. There are two arguments here: 1) that this is a carefully crafted sonic expression that is worthy of the record and 2) this is needlessly self-indulgent. Tweedy has always defended the song saying: “I know ninety-nine percent of our fans won’t like that song, they’ll say it’s a ridiculous indulgence. Even I don’t want to listen to it every time I play through the album. But the times I do calm myself down and pay attention to it, I think it’s valuable and moving and cathartic. I wouldn’t have put it on the record if I didn’t think it was great … I wanted to make an album about identity, and within that is the idea of a higher power, the idea of randomness, and that anything can happen, and that we can’t control it.”
For the record, I fall into the 99% and think its too indulgent. If it was 2 minutes of feedback, I wouldn’t have a problem with it, but 10 minutes? Come on. Still, I like that the band decided to go for it. I’ll always defend someone’s weird artistic vision, even if I don’t like it. Perhaps the best thing about Wilco is that they are never afraid of doing something weird. While that occasionally leads them astray, it also leads them to more interesting songs.
That’s not to say that this whole record is filled with odd experimental songs, it’s not. Hummingbird is essentially a late Beatles pop song. Handshake Drugs, Theologians, The Late Greats, and Wishful Thinking are pretty straightforward Wilco songs and fit comfortably in the band’s catalog. I’m a Wheel is as delightful and simple as rock music gets. Spiders (Kidsmoke), which clocks in at 10:46, seems indulgent, but it’s loud, pounding, kraut-rock sections are fun and have become a staple at Wilco’s live shows.
Ghost suffered for being the album after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It was a no win situation, if it had sounded the same as YHF critics would have hated it for being an obvious attempt to recreate a beloved album. If it was different, it would have received the yawn/shrugged shoulder response it got. Looking back with hindsight, and with the knowledge of the direction the band went afterwards, it seems clear to me that Ghost is a great record and deserves to stand on its own. It encompasses everything I love about Wilco. It’s weird, contradictory, beautiful, broken, haunting, and fun. And you can always skip over the end of Less Than You Think.