Wilco’s “A Ghost is Born”: A Revisit

When I was 19, I attempted to jump on the Yankee Hotel Foxrot bandwagon.  And admittedly, because I probably wasn’t ready for that kind of intensity and experimentation on the album, it ended up being a dust-collector for a long time.  It wasn’t until Sky Blue Sky opened the Wilco “door” for me, that I was able to listen again to Yankee Hotel and realize how truly brilliant and heartfelt it was.  Most critics say that the album is “career-definining” (American Songwriter) and I agree; it is probably their greatest record yet, though Sky Blue Sky is probably my favourite.  I posted a quote below from Tweedy explaining his belief that music can best, of any art form, conjure up emotional memories.  This was taken from the most recent issue of American Songwriter.  He goes on to say, “[not] necessarily the emotions that are contained within the song itself, but most accurately the emotions that are contained within people that they have trouble getting to.  And songs are functional in that way, in a lot of cases.  And music, handed down over many, many years, helps oeple remember, not necessarily what happened, but what people felt like when things happened.”  And this pretty much sums up for me, how music makes ME feel and think about my own life and the lives that surround me.

Anyway, because of my spur of obsession with Sky Blue Sky, I ended up picking up A Ghost is Born.  The funny thing about that album, is that the cover art is so cold; a solitary egg on an egg-coloured background with no font on the cardboard sleeve.  However, they say “don’t judge a book by its cover”, and the same goes for albums I think (because if we did, NO ONE would ever have listened to Revolver).  Yet, that’s hard.  Because if something looks intimidating and difficult to access, I assume it will be.  I even wikipedia-ed the album prior to obtaining it to see if I could find an explanation for the album artwork, but came up fruitless.  The cover made no sense to me until I lifted the cardboard sleeve.

Once the sleeve is removed, the actual album jacket features the shell, racked.  Simple, yes.  And VERY effective. I think perhaps the album somehow sums up Tweedy’s experiences with addiction, and in doing so, reveals a lot about the human condition in general.  That outside, we are a shell.  And art, or any other food for our souls that we can imagine, cracks that shell.  Of course, the album’s title can also be summed up in the artwork; the egg hatches, but we cannot see what is inside.  The physical disc lies in a nest inside the cover; it is the ghost, perhaps?  A lot can be said about just an egg on a bare background. And that in itself, is already incredible, before we even talk about the music.

And where else to begin with the music other than the opener, “At Least That’s What You Said”.

Before ever owning this album, before even ever listening to Wilco, I was sitting at the campus bar with some friends from my creative writing class, and one classmate was talking with fervent love for Wilco.  He said, “all you need to do is just put on A Ghost is Born and drift away…”  For some reason, I’ve never forgotten those words from him.  And I had them in mind of course, when I put the album on for the first time myself.  And I heard the opener, and I did indeed drift away.  I was on a walk at the time, and I can even remember exactly where I was, how the weather was, what I was wearing, and how I felt.  I kind of looked up into the leaves and smelled coffee in the air, and the strong lilac smell that falls in a thin cotton sheet over the city in the summertime.  It’s kind of a rainy day song, but for some reason, that sunny, hot moment in time was exactly right for the album’s debut into my heart.  Not only is the song gorgeous and drift-worthy, but it almost seems haunted (by a ghost perhaps?) and all of these little intricicies were not lost on me at ALL when I put on the record.  “Jesus,” I thought.  “Wilco is AMAZING.”

Another song that really caught me is the ten-minute epic, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” because there’s something almost poignant about the driving, thriving, steady beat accompanying the words, “it’s good to be alone”.  The song picks up in all its badass rock glory about three quarters of the way through; it bursts into a passionate crescendo as Tweedy sings, “I’ll be in my bed/you can be the stone/that raises from the dead/and carries us all home.”  Tweedy has lots of interesting little tidbits of uniquely-worded wisdom on death and particularly Jesus (see also: “The Ruling Class” by side-project Loose Fur).  This is kind of like that.  Distorted guitars accompany that same insistent head-banging rock, rounding out the song and you’re kind of left wordless as the song trudges triumphantly through you.  It’s like a ghostly military parade while you watch from the sidelines, silent.

It’s a real change of pace then, to hear the light, folksy “Muzzle of Bees” right after.  It’s one of the more conventional and mature songs on the record, but pretty – SO pretty – in a weepy, surrendering way.  There’s something romantic, innocent and naive about the lyrics; they’re blissful in a certain kind of way, but there’s something sinister underneath that is altogether impossible to describe.  Perfect example of this odd amalgamation of emotions: “when dogs laugh some say they’re barking/I don’t think they’re mean/some people get so frightened/the fences in between”.  I wish I wrote it.  And then the final lyrics, “…with a breeze blowing through/my head upon your knee/half of it’s you/half is me” are both lie-in-the-grass friendly, and cry-in-the-rain perfect.  The song’s instrumental outro soars out into the distance like a migrating flock of birds.

The next three songs are oddly placed, but it is easy to make sense of them as a triad; “Hummingbird” has a Billy Joel kind of pop sound.  “Handshake Drugs” sounds like the best 1970’s a.m. radio song ever made (though, clocking at just over six minutes, there likely would have been a shortened version).  It’s one of the best songs on the whole record, and sums up all of Wilco’s strengths up to 2004 when the record was released.  It’s urban and rural at the exact same time, and painful, lyrically: “I felt like a clown/I looked like someone I used to know/I felt alright/as if I ever was myself/I wasn’t that night”.  “Wishful Thinking” is creepy and reminds me of a great experimental film at first, but audibly; there is something looming and stalking in the dark, in an industrial place; but the guitar’s rainy warmth cuts its way through that darkness into another kind of darkness; that of perhaps loss or depression.  But the question, “What would we be without wishful thinking?” offers hopeless hope; or, hope for people who hate hope.  I want to write like Jeff Tweedy.

After a few more great tracks, (including the lengthy, though it never feels lengthy, “Less Than You Think”, the balls-out rocker, “I’m a Wheel”) the album rounds out with a conventional alt-country up-tempo tune, “The Late Greats”.  It’s an appropriate ending as it signals the start of a new era for Wilco, of Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album), of a more conventional, mature group.  This is the song on A Ghost is Born that most closely resembles the Wilco of Nels Cline.

“A Ghost is Born” is signficant to my growth into real adulthood and taught me a lot of lessons about life and love and all that jazz.  But it is also significant to me as a document of MUSIC; it is an uncompromising, gorgeous, near-perfect effort from the band that NEVER gets it wrong, EVER.  But this is to me, almost as ‘right’ as they’ve ever been.  I’m a better person for knowing the album.

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