Wilco ≤ a ghost is born
Is Wilco really less than or equal to its newest album A Ghost Is Born? Is Jeff Tweedy saying through his choice of a mathematical operator that the band has created something greater than itself? Or is there less to that choice than you think?
A Ghost Is Born is full of ghosts: ghosts born out of memories in "Hummingbird"; contemplation of the ghost in the machine in "Theologians"; ghosts of unrecognized achievement, long since forgotten, in "The Late Greats"; ghostly and deeply significant meaning that resonates through this album and permeates every song, every cryptic lyric and vulnerable guitar solo. For the person who wants to know what music is about, A Ghost Is Born begs to be picked apart word by word.
Like its predecessor Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (lovingly noded by our own Mr. Hotel), it's easy to think at first that A Ghost Is Born doesn't have any actual songs on it. "At Least That's What You Said," the opener, is pretty enough with its subdued piano and guitar, but the change in dynamic level in the middle of the song is enough to have you clutching your ears and reaching for the volume control. And what's with having fully half of a five-minute song consist of a guitar solo? For that matter, did "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" have to be 10 minutes long when half of it is a guitar solo as well? And what in holy hell is going on in the last 12 minutes of "Less Than You Think"? Oh, how the critics just love to throw up their hands in perplexity and mutter about hitting the skip button when they hear that one!
I said the same thing when I listened to this album. The first time, I said "This is going to be a tough egg to crack." Wilco invites comparisons to Radiohead, with their newfound experimentation, their singer's unique voice, their cryptic lyrics and almost-pop sensibilities. But in spite of the similarities, Wilco's soul is different from Radiohead's, and that's what makes Wilco so profoundly different and so great. I listened to A Ghost Is Born a few more times and I said "I listened to Kid A and even managed to like it. But this, oh this. Oh no. This is going to be the album that defeats me." And if you say something like this, if you can't but think that A Ghost Is Born is just too weird, I implore you:
A Ghost Is Born is an album that demands your attention. But it will reward your persistence, doubly so if you're one of those thoughtful lyrics-interpretation types. Give it time, and the pieces will start to coalesce like the fragmented, skittering, discordant guitar solos in "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" which start to take form and mimic the clean and exultant instrumental coda.
"Hummingbird" may be the place to start if you want to get a foothold. It's just over three minutes long and has no particularly "weird" stuff in it, but the melody is sweet and beautiful and it still has plenty to chew on lyrically, like the juicy, delicious and exquisite "A cheap sunset on a television set could upset her / But he never could."
From there, you may want to proceed to the stretch of songs bookended by the twin behemoths of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and "Less Than You Think." From the delicate fingerpicking in "Muzzle of Bees" to the gradually accumulating feedback extravaganza of "Handshake Drugs" to the perplexingly simpleminded "I'm A Wheel" to the religious musing of "Theologians", there's more than enough here to convince you that not only are there songs on this album, they are downright fantastic, and moreover A Ghost Is Born might just be a masterpiece.
Even with the quality of the music, though, A Ghost Is Born would probably not hold together without Jeff Tweedy's songwriting; his lyric for the enigmatic "Less Than You Think" gives it the air of epiphany, starts to make sense of what follows it, and quite possibly makes it the centerpiece of the album. Once you've listened to every last agonizing minute of it - Tweedy has said that it's his attempt to evoke one of his migranes in sound - you'll feel like you should get a certificate that says "I Listened To All Of 'Less Than You Think.'" No one can be blamed for skipping the last twelve minutes of the song. The question is, can Wilco be blamed for including them?
I'm inclined to be generous toward Wilco, and for this reason I feel that they put in difficult songs like "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and "Less Than You Think" because they had something to say with them, not just because they wanted to confound all the critics who swooned over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. If you're interested in figuring out what Wilco has to say, A Ghost Is Born is worth swooning over too. If you just want the music, well, there's still a good ten or eleven fantastic tunes on here. And while there are mysteries to be unraveled in Tweedy's lyrics, the immediacy of lines like "I thought it was cute / For you to kiss / My purple black eye / Even though I caught it from you" will satisfy those who are just along for the ride.
But you'll get the most out of A Ghost Is Born if you look for that ghost, the wisp of passion that flows through this whole album, brings it together, and makes it greater than the sum of its parts. The album deserves to be made sense of, at least a little bit; in reality, there's so much more to it than you think.