I love creepy album titles (i.e. Iron and Wine's The Creek Drank the Cradle). What's even more fun is if they have the sense of being some kind of inside joke. Wilco's new aptly named album A Ghost is Born (Nonesuch Records) fulfills both secret semantic desires.
A Ghost is Born, as the name would seem to indicate, is both a farewell and an embarking on something new. Beloved in the 1990s for their alt-country leanings and lead man Jeff Tweedy's whimsical ruminations, Wilco had started walking new ground by the time Yankee Hotel Foxtrot hit the streets in November of 2002. With Yankee, the group reached its fullest potential as one of the best relatively unsung American bands -- they seamlessly melded the melodic harmonies of their older stuff with new sonic experimentations. The jury is still out on A Ghost is Born; half the critics and fans think it's time to pull the plug on Wilco, while the other half is saying this is not only Wilco's best to date but just might be one of the best albums to come along in recent years.
Tweedy, fresh from rehab and working with a slightly reshuffled band lineup, sounds a little more subdued and ennui-riddled here, which is all the more fitting considering what a tangle of hope/disappointment/desire these songs make. Using classic rock and pop arrangements, many of the songs on Ghost have a strong New York/city street/1978 sound. "Handshake Drugs" is one of the catchier, guitar riff-laden pieces, channeling Lou Reed by way of Nick Drake, while "Theologians" is pure, unadulterated vintage David Bowie. It's good times, if you're into that sort of thing (and I am).
Where Wilco runs into trouble is in several self-indulgent tracks that go on well into the 10-minute range with complete devolutions into chaos and discordance. Upon several listens, I can detect and appreciate the melody hiding behind all the angsty sturm und drang, but one song, "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," continues to feel like tiny spiders crawling all over my last nerve.
All in all, A Ghost is Born is still some of the most interesting work Wilco has ever done. It's a compulsively listenable, musically challenging effort you just might enjoy if you can set aside your longings for the "old" Wilco.
Publication date: 07/15/04