A Ghost Is Born

(Rhino/Nonesuch; 2004)

By Amir Nezar | 31 December 2007

As much as we love doing what we do as music critics, it is a tiring business, a business sustained and perpetuated over the weeks and months and sometimes years by (if not money, then) our passion for music, coupled with the indelible inspirational powers of that rare band/artist. It is tiring because, absent our own bands and equipment, we scavenge a sea of nettles, and seeking the niche or crook that will hide the bullion to reward our efforts, are more often pricked by disappointment than met with success. It’s why many of us become occasionally bitter, and it’s why some of us become incorrigibly bitter.

And, if you live in the real world, your situation isn’t much different. None of our situations is particularly different from the one I’ve just described. We all search and suffer for what often seems precious little gain, put our hearts and souls (if we’re lucky) into what we do and many times, the tides simply turn against us, and what ever name you give to the entity I’ll call chance, sometimes (s)he’s a bitch. Your relationship fails, your latest project is scrapped, you just can’t summon the courage to walk up to that person you’ve been watching at the party who sits in the corner, and put out your hand. And, if you’re like me, or anyone else with the slightest bit of ambition beyond money-making, you feel that the very best thing in the world would be to have the time and courage to stretch yourself out, to act on all the inspiration that’s being walled in by this hopeless disappointment called reality. While avoiding melodrama as much as I can, I think it’s safe to say most of us die trying.

But some of us succeed in our own sloppy ways. And I think with all of my heart that when those abraded successes do emerge, we better damn well recognize it.

Which is why I’m going to stick my neck out for this Wilco album. One of music-writing’s caveats is “don’t refer to your rating,” but I have to say this: my rating is not based on objective, emotionally removed judgments. My rating is based on how much I feel for this album and how much it impacts me as a person who suffers, like most, from at least a twinge of existential anxiety.

In my mind, that I can feel that much for this album, that it impacts me so strangely and strongly, is, alone, enough to make it better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Sacrilege, I know, but I have reasons.

First, let’s talk lyrics. I sincerely hope there are more than a few of us who realize how full of shit a number of the lyrics on YHF were. Jeff Tweedy, on Wilco’s last effort, almost exceeded Dan Bejar in the extent to which both of them string together remotely intellectual-sounding tidbits that actually have no fucking meaning at all. If “I assassin down the avenue” or “let’s forget about the tongue-tied lightning” strike you as brilliant lyrical impressionism, you may not have taken these things call “English classes.” Any intro to creative writing course will tell you right off the bat: pretty sounding language does not in itself carry substance – in fact, much of the time it can be more hollow than the ugliest string of common, honest words.

Tweedy, in his suffering from migraines and such, seems to have come to an appreciation of simple, meaningful phrases, while still keeping a knack for the occasional ingenious lyric, like “You thought it was cute/ For you to kiss/ My purple black eye/ And even though I caught it from you/ I still think we’re serious,” from “At Least That’s What You Said.” Elsewhere, his narrative setups lead to devastating lyrical implications; on “Hell is Chrome,” the fact that the devil is leading the narrator to hell makes the lyrics about being “welcomed with open arms,” and the worn, defeated chant “come with me” at once deeply sinister and sad.

What makes Ghost succeed so magnificently, though, is how the directness, the openness of the lyrics in general, is so beautifully matched to the damaged music, which is itself rife with symbolism and meaning. You can feel Tweedy stretching himself, letting his inspiration light up the entire universe even as he goes through periods of darkness. On “At Least That’s What You Said,” the defeated exterior of the song peels away with the melodic bursts that pound through as the transition to an anguished guitar solo, revealing a torn and unsure core of bleeding chords. Or on “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” which early critics have panned for its tedious length (over 10 minutes) at a kraut-rock rhythm, the apparent depression of the album’s narrator is communicated through the looping, monotonous rhythm.

But as Tweedy takes to his filthy, sloppily gorgeous guitar, he builds serpentine progressions that eventually erupt into golden moments of triumphant, cascading melody, before allowing the feedback wails of his guitar to recede back into the monotony of the looped rhythm. The analogies, in the first case to a wounded heart covered over by tired scars, and in the second to a life of repetition punctuated by moments of building and even transcendent beauty, are almost too easy to draw.

Even the awfully abrasive white noise on “Less Than You Think,” while prey to my skip button, has its symbolic place as the expression of the anguish, migraine-caused and otherwise, that Tweedy’s suffered recently. Amazingly, for the most part this musical and lyrical symbolism manages to come out without sacrificing the immediate, raw intimacy of the album. And that’s what makes Ghost such an endlessly captivating listen. O’Rourke doesn’t fail on the production either; his ability to crystallize and preserve the album’s most pristine moments alongside its more chaotic ones with such deftness is absolutely astounding. It is, without question, the best-produced and mixed album of the year so far. It preserves the band’s integral warmth while keeping its elements individually beautiful in their raw way.

In fact, perhaps my only problem with YHF was its aloofness; while “Radio Cure” and “Ashes of American Flags” housed intimate lyrics, the sounds that accompanied them seemed exhaustively studied and technical. Even in its most seemingly unplanned moments YHF bore a hint of fabrication – that is, it felt like an album made to be a classic. It was full of innovation and evolving, complex structures, but lacked the visceral punch and throbbing heart of Ghost to match its technical prowess.

Conversely, Ghost eschews that almost severe technical prowess in favor of more simple beauty. Most of the electronic embellishments that often ended up as mere decoration on YHF are left out here for clean, simpler arrangements stripped down to their cores. These arrangements are almost perfectly consistent in their beauty and warmth; “Muzzle of Bees” is as lyrically and musically heartbreaking as any song Tweedy has ever written. Its slide guitar and acoustic interactions, which are eventually joined by Tweedy’s soaring electric, are pure layered bliss. “Hummingbird,” a string-assisted piano led ditty fades from a bouncing rhythm in and out of delicate percussion-less passages, all while narrating one of the most charming love stories ever put to song. And “Company In My Back,” rides a flexible, warm bass line into a lush, acoustic and piano-driven hook that forms one of the most serene choruses I’ve heard all year.

Of course, there is the question of the heavy soloing in Ghost. Some might say its superfluous wank; but given the lyrical material that’s so substantially melded into the sonic imagery of the songs, it’s usually extremely appropriate, and always backed up by substantial instrumentation and hooks. Even when it’s sloppy or over-extended, as is the case a number of times, it’s forgivable, precisely because it comes out so inspired, where YHF could sound cold and even clinical.

That’s essentially my final reason for why I think this is easily one of the best albums of the year: its missteps, its over-indulgences, every small mistake that a more cynical man than me would pick out – all of these things, along with gorgeous melody and lovely hurt, form the big, expansive, breaking and healing heart of a man who suffers, though perhaps to greater extent, the same struggles and questions that you or I suffer. That he (along with his band, of course) can make such an uncompromising album so laden with letdown and triumph, and at the same time save it from falling into vague self-pity, is rare and wonderful. And it’s got me cheering along to its indefatigable beauty, even as it breaks my heart and makes me cry. As far as I’m concerned, fuck the mistakes or missteps; when it comes down to it, that core is what Great Albums are made of.