What to make of Wilco? The uncategorizable band released their latest unclassifiable album, "A Ghost Is Born, yesterday. I've been digesting it ever since. Wilco is a fascinating act -- like many of my favorite bands (Beatles, Bowie, etc.), they've mutated and changed like crazy since their earlier work, becoming something wholly other from where they began. Rising from the ashes of half of alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo, Wilco was supposed to be a folksy alt-country act -- and that's what their first album, 1995's A.M., sounded like. But a decade on and four albums later, Wilco 2004 would barely recognize Wilco 1995.
"A Ghost Is Born" is willfully, obstinately experimental. A better title might have been "Fragments." It's a scattered, frail and often beautiful little record. Like most Wilco CDs, it needs many listens to fully sink in. Their "popular" breakthrough, 2002's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," has become one of my favorites. "A Ghost Is Born" takes another step forward still -- once country/rock, Wilco is now a jamming, freeform combo that explores sonic boundaries and manages to combine bits of prog-rock, jazz, heavy metal, emo and more into a strange stew. Think Sonic Youth meets The Byrds, laced through with elements of electronica.
I'm still not sure what to make of "Ghost." I don't think it's as confident or cohesive as "Yankee," and it feels slighter somehow. There are beautiful songs, to be sure -- I particularly love the 10-minute Kraftwerk-meets-Velvet Underground jam workout of "Spiders (Kidsmoke), the jumpy pop-rock "Like A Wheel" and the album opener, chord-pounding "At Least That's What You Said." "Theologians" has a singalong feel like a lost 1970s Big Star track, while "Company In My Back" has a beautiful, glittering melody shimmering throughout. Frontman and Wilco's primary creator Jeff Tweedy has suffered from severe migraines and addiction to painkillers. The awful pain of migraines (I've had a few myself) kind of echoes throughout this album, maybe the first concept record on the subject. It feels fluttery, sparkling and vague.
But on early listens, this album also suffers from that fuzzy lack of focus. The flaws can be summed up by the grievous misstep of "Less Than You Think," a tinny piano ballad that is bloated by 12 minutes of indulgent, annoying and tuneless guitar feedback. In an Associated Press interview, Tweedy said this about the "song": “It was another way to encourage listeners to exercise their free will — to get up and turn it off." Cute. Maybe it's how Tweedy's migraines felt to him. But also a waste of disc space and energy, out of place with everything else here, and y'know, Lou Reed did the whole "an album of feedback" thing 30 years ago with "Metal Machine Music" and it wasn't that impressive then. The last song, the short those-were-the-days ode to music "The Late Greats," gets lost because it falls right after the unlistenable feedback workout.
Another thing that vexes about "Ghost" is how thin and buried in the mix Tweedy's voice is on too many tracks. Songs start in whispers and meander on for minutes before suddenly bursting into loud chords. The Pixies or Nirvana did the loud-soft dynamic thing well, but here it just seems like poor production. Tweedy's voice has never been a strong, dynamic one and losing it further in the sound is a shame because I love his lyrics, open-ended and strange poetry like on the tune "Muzzle of Bees." I feel like he's trying to hide them from listeners here.
Harping aside, I'm still enjoying a lot of "Ghost," but I hope it's a digression on the side for Wilco, and that they focus a little harder on making songs and less on studio mechanics for their next one. It's too early to give this a final grade, but right now I'm leaning toward giving it a B.
Edit: OK, listening to it still more last night, the flaws seem a little less important than the highlights. Also, Tweedy's voice doesn't seem QUITE so buried if you listen in a quiet room rather than while driving in a car or in a noisy living room with a baby babbling. :D Let's call it a B+ if we must grade and be done with it.