Hey, what happened to the funny noises? That’s bound to be any fan’s first reaction to Wilco’s latest metamorphosis, yet another sharp turn, in sound and mood, for a band that seems compelled to change with every album. And in its own way, it’s as eerie as anything Wilco have recorded yet.
Last time around, Wilco were dropped by Reprise Records because songwriter Jeff Tweedy and mixer Jim O’Rourke baked all sorts of buzzes and creaks into the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Wilco put the songs online, and a more sympathetic label, Nonesuch, picked up the album, which debuted at Number Thirteen.
Though O’Rourke returns as co-producer, A Ghost Is Born is no sequel. Where Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sounded dense and surreal, the bulk of Ghost is spare and earthy, with streaks of Crazy Horse, the Band, the Beatles and the Replacements. Where YHF tried to assess America’s soul, Ghost looks inward.
For most of the album, Wilco use guitars, bass, drums and keyboards, recorded with distinct realism and often played together live in the studio. Many tunes are slow and desolate, pausing occasionally as if unsure how to go on. While they ruminate, odd things sprout from within: spiraling electric-guitar jams, sustained feedback howls and, in “Less Than You Think,” a meditative twelve-minute electronic coda that begins as quietly as an air-conditioner hum and opens out into a forest of sounds. “Spiders” starts out as metronomic one-chord kraut rock, launches Tweedy into spiky, scrabbling electric-guitar leads and, four minutes in, riffs its way into cantankerous rock.
Ghost‘s lyrics intertwine thoughts about a romance breaking up and a business relationship breaking down. “Company in My Back” could be talking about the record-label follies, but “Wishful Thinking” is more ominous: “The pressure devices/Hell in a nutshell/Is any song worth singing if it doesn’t help?”
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Yes. Instead of grand solutions, Tweedy offers illuminating curiosity about what can happen in a song. It’s not experiment for experiment’s sake. There’s a sense that every note and sound on Ghost, even the spontaneous ones, have been selected for private but rigorous reasons. A drum tap here, a glimmering hammer dulcimer there, a jab of distorted guitar, an echo suddenly opening new spaces —on Ghost, they say what words cannot.