Wilco: A Ghost is Reborn
eff Tweedy finally made his Neil Young record.
Unfortunately, he made the wrong one.
Tweedy’s lyrical similarities to Young are nothing new. Jeff’s best lyrics—the cut-up punchlines, vague, cryptic syntax and sparks of oblique resonance—have always resembled Young’s ramshackle rhymes. However, A Ghost is Born, Wilco’s fifth album, marks the first time that Tweedy has cut an LP that sounds like a Neil Young record.
Tweedy’s backing band may have better chops than Crazy Horse (Young’s notoriously rag-tag gang of stumblebums) but on AGiB, with its loping rhythms, unrefined arrangements and loose, one-off feel, they reach for the rusty aura of The Horse’s 1970s recordings with David Briggs; sessions that birthed LPs like Everyone Knows This is Nowhere, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night.
Sounds great, right?
Right. But there is a problem.
AGiB offers pleasures that are as mild as they are subtle. A disparate and inconsistent collection of songs that reveal no overarching themes or moods other than a grinding headache of confusion and frustration, Ghost sputters, spits and then breaks down like one of Shakey's vintage automobiles. In the end it feels more in line with Young’s scattershot early 1980s work (American Stars ‘N Bars, Hawks & Doves and Re-ac-tor), than his classic period. The core of the problem is that a couple of the songs really stink.
Exhibit A: “Hell is Chrome”
This low-energy lament opens with an interesting bass figure and an attention grabbing vocal couplet but then plods over the same ground for four minutes without shifting dynamics or offering any appealing melody or texture. Its lyric does offer a foggy window into Tweedy’s drug addiction, but even that cannot redeem the dragging tune, which goes nowhere.
Exhibit B: “I’m a Wheel”
The most embarrassing bit on the album, “Wheel” is a rickety rave-up that has been an occasional inclusion in the band’s live show for years. Undoubtedly Wilco’s worst officially released song, it features the plum chorus “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 / Once in Germany someone said “Nein.’”
It’s not just a couple duds, either. The album’s poor organization does nearly as much damage on its own.
Exhibit C: “Less Than What You Think” & “Late Greats”
A maudlin dirge that drags on for several minutes before collapsing into nearly nine minutes of feedback, “Less Than What You Think” would have made a poor enough choice as the album’s closer. But, worse, Tweedy closes by following the waves of drone with the charming but slipshod “Late Greats.” It tries to provide some cheer but in this context can only stumble to the album’s conclusion with an awkward hitch in its gait.
What else could I do?
So, like the rabid Neil Young fans who have painstakingly recrafted the coulda-woulda-shoulda-been masterpiece Homegrown from the best material sprinkled across Young’s spotty early 1980s releases, I set it upon myself to reforge A Ghost is Born.
Here’s what I came up with:
I believe that AGiB’s virtues are found in its variety. While each track in Tweedy’s version is blessed with warm fuzz from Sear Sound’s vintage recording equipment, they have little else in common. For instance, the totally unexpected mecha-romp “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and the head-bopping mid-tempo rocker “Theologians” are gems of radically different color and, still, neither have anything in common with the bouncy, piano-driven “Hummingbird.”
It was this variety that inspired me to make my selections from a wide array of sources and fostered my conviction that the effort would not be counter to the spirit of the original recording.
I concede that my meddling sacrifices the consistency of the album’s only universal standard, the Sear Sound fuzz, but I contend that the loss is more than regained by trimming the fat and adding muscle with songs that are much stronger than those included on the album. Not to mention resequencing the album in a way that makes it much more listenable.
Every song I selected was written during the same period as the ones Tweedy picked. (In fact, most are newer than “I’m A Wheel.”) So this is clearly something that Jeff, himself, could have put together.
So, why didn’t he?
Shit, I don’t know. Blame Jay Bennett or something.
A Ghost is Reborn begins with two tracks from 2003’s online-only EP, More Like The Moon. The first, the inviting and tuneful “A Magazine Called Sunset,” lays out the welcome mat for the listener much better than Tweedy’s selection, the storming crescendo of “At Least That’s What You Said,” and provides the album with the radio-ready single it sorely lacks.
In a move designed to mirror the opening tracks of Wilco’s true masterpiece, 1999’s Summerteeth, the dark-pop of “Magazine” is followed by the reverberating ruminations of “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard.” An arpeggiated solo-acoustic number that echoes Being There’s “Sunken Treasure”, it downshifts the tone and works well as a softening lead-in to the grayish AGiB material.
I then rearranged Tweedy’s selected material to better focus attention on what I felt should have been the album’s centerpiece, the kraut-rock epic “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” The playful piano of “Hummingbird” is reimagined as a soft landing after “Spiders” military motorik.
A live version of the unreleased b-side “Not for the Season” was selected over several rocked-out demo cuts because the stripped-down solo rendition best captures the somber tone of the lyrics.
Candy left over from Halloween
A unified theory of everything
Love left over from lovers leaving
Books they all know they're not worth reading
It's not for the season
The eighteenth century literary critic Motoori Norinaga coined the term mono no aware to describe Japanese literature that emphasized the deep impression of time’s passage and combined a serene acceptance of life’s transience with an appreciation of "the gentle pleasures found in our mundane pursuits" (1). Those qualities in Tweedy’s lyric combined with his understated performance at Chicago’s Vic Theater that night strike at the heart of the complex feeling Norinaga was trying to nail down.
And what more appropriate way to capture a song about the transient nature of time than a live recording that has a date, time, place, and ticket stub attached to it forever?
The rising tide of “At Least That What’s You Think” provides a engaging climax following the mellow “Season” and then gives way to my own attempt at a coda, the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot b-side “Cars Can’t Escape.” A nuanced bit of four a.m. miserablism, "Cars" sees Tweedy take up the part of a jilted lover meditating on love lost before gently nodding off to sleep.
A sleepless ghost yearning to be reborn. An insomniac whose only choice is to wait.
Wait till the morning comes.
(1) Jonathon Delacour, author of the weblog "the heart of things"
By: Ben Welsh
Published on: 2004-06-21