Spiders Filling Out Tax Returns, Cheap Sunsets on Television Sets and Wilco’s A Ghost is Born at 20

22 years ago, the Chicagoans released one of the greatest rock albums ever. Two years later, their complicated, personal follow-up broke the ceiling and rolled around in the fallen shards.

Music Features Wilco
Spiders Filling Out Tax Returns, Cheap Sunsets on Television Sets and Wilco’s A Ghost is Born at 20

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot should have been the record that destroyed Wilco for good. Their fourth album was a fratricidal affair, from intrapersonal band conflicts to member changes to delays to arguments with engineers to Reprise Records not liking the final product. It quickly became a question of whether or not anyone was ever going to hear the awaited follow-up to Summerteeth. But on September 18th, 2001, a week after its first scheduled release date, Wilco put the album up for free on their website. They’d reclaimed the rights to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and then sold them two months later to Nonesuch Records, who’d give the record an official retail release in April. Funnily enough, both labels were imprints of AOL Time Warner, existing on opposite sides of the spectrum. Reprise got famous putting out Frank Sinatra’s albums in the 1960s and has put out almost all of Neil Young’s discography, while Nonesuch initially got its kicks selling European baroque LPs before pivoting to Stephen Sondheim and, later, Emmylou Harris and the Black Keys (and recently, they put out Hurray for the Riff Raff‘s perfect The Past Is Still Alive). Wilco sonically lands somewhere in the middle of all of that.

But for Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Leroy Bach, Glenn Kotche and Jay Bennett, they changed rock ‘n’ roll in not an instant, but in a long, grueling, miscalculated interval. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was initially lauded by everyone (except for the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, who gave it one star and called it “purty”), racking up a 10 from Pitchfork, a four-star review from Rolling Stone (which was retroactively changed to five stars in their albums guide) and places like NME, the Guardian and Blender all drooled over the LP—and rightfully so. Where Summerteeth was a miserable, beautiful, rollicking harbinger of all things violent and pale and multi-dimensional in 1999, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for an American musical landscape without a real identity.

Gone were the alt-country days of Uncle Tupelo and A.M. and Being There. The record creaks and cracks and clatters and crunches and glitches and sways from side to side, a sonic embodiment of the very shaking skyscrapers Tweedy sings about on “Jesus, Etc.” It’s a collection of songs that sounds as indebted to the Grateful Dead as it does Aphex Twin. And the circuitry of such a project wraps its lyricism around you like coils of wire, as Tweedy bemoans vignettes of cigarette smoke, burnt American flags, lies and truth. But Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was not a cynical album. “I’ve got reservations ‘bout so many things, but not about you,” Tweedy concludes in the final moments. And we hung on to every single syllable.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is still, in 2024, one of the greatest albums ever made. It changed the trajectory of 21st century rock ‘n’ roll and carried an early-aughts torch that glowed perpendicular to that of the media-created buzz of New York City’s burgeoning renaissance. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was anti-tradition, hellfire soaked in acid. It was compared to the recently-released Kid A, but it was far better than Radiohead’s second perfect album. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot eclipsed brilliance by challenging the very notion of how a rock record could even begin to exist as such. Transcendence scrambles in the presence of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; its fractured, Homeric adventure greatly foreshadows the grim reaper-summoning A Ghost is Born that would follow three years later.

So let me rephrase: A Ghost is Born should have been the record that destroyed Wilco for good. Tweedy, Jim O’Rourke, Stirratt, Kotche, Bach and Mikael Jorgensen (Bennett had left the band by then) holed up at Sear Sound in Manhattan from November 2003 through March 2004 to make their fifth album. “I thought I was going to die,” Tweedy said in his memoir, Let’s Go (so We Can Get Back). “Every song we recorded seemed likely to be my last. Every note felt final.” At the time, he was taking copious, near-lethal doses of Vicodin to undercut his ongoing fights with depression. Tweedy had also been cursed with a lifelong bout of chronic migraines. He was also having anxiety attacks. He befriended (I’m using that word gingerly) a kid who worked at a pharmacy in Chicago. In exchange for bags of painkillers, he’d give the kid Wilco tickets. In his hotel room, Tweedy would “lie in the tub until the bathwater would get cold,” telling himself that “if I fall asleep right now, there’s a pretty good chance I’m not waking up.”

A Ghost is Born was supposed to be Wilco’s “Noah’s Ark” record. Tweedy wrote a lot of songs with animals in the title—“Muzzle of Bees,” “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” “Hummingbird” and “Panthers,” the last of which didn’t make the final cut; there were lyrics about a fly in “Company in My Back”—with the hopes that those animals would serve as metaphors for the parts of himself worth saving. “The dread I was feeling was profound and definitely biblical in its scope,” Tweedy wrote. “It felt like a big flood was coming, something no one could survive. So I was saving anything I could, piling it all onto this ark as a way to salvage whatever I could of myself. I was a goner, but I didn’t have to lose everything.” Tweedy saw A Ghost is Born as being something his sons, Spencer and Sammy, could hold close to remember him with—a document of the good stuff, the things you pass down through a lineage until it becomes folklore. All of it was, as Tweedy aptly puts it himself, maudlin and grim. Eventually, he abandoned that direction (but kept some of the animal songs), realizing that, if he were to die, his sons couldn’t just make A Ghost is Born their surrogate father.

While at Sear Sound, Tweedy made it his mission to not record while high on Vicodin. If you’ve ever listened to A Ghost is Born and thought, “Wow, Wilco sound meaner than hell on this thing,” it’s because Tweedy was nursing catastrophically bad migraines the whole time. It’s a headache personified into cataclysmic, doomy instrumentals and mechanical noises. “Less Than You Think” has an outro constructed with drones and industrial, alienating soundscapes meant to mimic “when the pain [of a migraine] wraps itself so tightly around your skull it starts to warp your perception of light and time.” The Crazy Horse-beckoning, distorted and crushing guitar solo coda of “At Least That’s What You Said” is meant to mimic a panic attack. “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” the album’s greatest chapter (and Wilco’s finest 10 minutes ever laid to tape), meanders and skronks before flipping a switch and exploding into a gnarly set of guitar solos as sour and putrid as sulfur and as menacing and torrential as a hailstorm. The take of “Spiders” you hear on A Ghost is Born is the first one the band tracked. The only other take that occurred in the studio was never finished.

A Ghost is Born was supposed to come out on June 8th, 2004, but its release was delayed by two weeks after Tweedy entered rehab in May for his Vicodin addiction, on account of suppressing his chronic migraines, anxiety attacks and depression. It was the second consecutive Wilco album delayed, but it became the band’s best opening week of sales (at the time). It peaked at #8 on the Billboard 200 and Rolling Stone liked it, though they didn’t like it as much as they liked Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. That seemed to be the consensus across the board, anyways. Pitchfork gave the album a 6.6/10 and called it “wildly uneven,” a post-perfect score drop-off that is still unheard of. Even the Chicago Tribune wasn’t impressed, calling A Ghost is Born “more of a side step than a forward leap” from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

I think enough time has passed for us to be honest about the whole thing: A Ghost is Born is as good, if not better, than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. While “Kamara,” “Heavy Metal Drummer,” “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” offer an intimate look into Tweedy’s influences, as he turned Wilco’s masterpiece into a tapestry of blues, pop, experimentalism, country, jazz and punk (post and otherwise), many of which were interwoven into each other simultaneously, what came after—the glacial unrest and chaos of A Ghost is Born—is the bewitching tempest of Tweedy’s deepest insecurities, flaws, hopes and regrets. Where Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the greatest, most influential record Wilco ever made, A Ghost is Born is their best and most personal. Both albums are bruised, but only one’s purple contains a hue of gross, bisque yellow, too.

A Ghost is Born sounds like Tweedy and the band’s one final nod to the sound they created on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, while also foreshadowing the back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll they’d embrace with open, rehabilitated arms on Sky Blue Sky three years later. Wilco’s fifth LP was defined by the band’s conscious attempt to make their own Marquee Moon, completely galvanized by Television’s ability to play unmistakable, deranged guitar solos that twisted genres and sounded like epic, Shakespearean gut-punches that curdled your blood and widened your eyes all at once. At an hour in length, Wilco refused to edit themselves. The 12 tracks sound like rough drafts anodized in kinetic zigs too fast for their own zags. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” was 11 minutes long, “Less Than You Think” clocked in at 15. Wilco had never dragged themselves out so far, never ratcheted up the distressing so loudly. But Tweedy, who played nearly every guitar part on A Ghost is Born, was not as mixolydian as Tom Verlaine was. No, he was far more pentatonic like Neil Young. In my opinion, the messiness is reflected in the music all the same.

On “Hell is Chrome,” Tweedy reckons with meeting the devil and “receiv[ing] so much help in every way.” “The air was crisp like sunny, late-winter days,” he sings. “A springtime yawning high in the haze, and I felt like I belonged. Come with me.” “Hummingbird” sounds like the Lake Michigan version of a McCartney pop ditty, as Tweedy sings about himself in the third-person, delivering some of his most earnest, captivating lines (“He slept on a mountain. In a sleeping bag underneath the stars, he would lie awake and count them. And the gray fountain spray of the great Milky Way would never let him die alone”) and admitting that his purpose of being an echo that “rid[es] alone, town after town, toll after toll” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. “Remember to remember me,” he asks the listener and his family and any stranger along the way. Tweedy opens up on “Handshake Drugs,” too, claiming he “felt like a clown they were translating poorly, I looked like someone I used to know.”

When Tweedy returned to Chicago from New York in March 2004, his life got worse. While his wife Susie’s mother was dying from lung cancer, he was stealing her prescription morphine. “I barely remember that, and I wish I didn’t remember it at all,” he said. “I want the memory to disappear forever, to be expunged from my permanent record. But there it is.” A therapist told him to let his opiate addiction color his art and later suggested he accompany Tweedy on the road with Wilco. Tweedy went off on the guy, calling him the devil and then, in a flash, asking him for a lift home because of an oncoming panic attack. While that interaction sounds a lot like the one he sings about on “Hell is Chrome,” Tweedy used it to quit drugs entirely. He went cold turkey on any and every pill, “convinced any medication I had been taking was making me sick.” Tweedy lost 30 pounds and practically went catatonic, hiding away in bed and having recurring panic attacks or wandering aimlessly around a nearby park so Spencer and Sammy wouldn’t get worried. “I couldn’t play music anymore, couldn’t be a father or a husband,” he said.

But as the release of A Ghost is Born was on the not-so-distant horizon, Tweedy suffered a total mental breakdown. Susie took him to an emergency room when he was having heart attack-like symptoms; doctors inoculated him with anti-anxiety meds that wore off quickly. “I begged them to admit me into the psych ward,” Tweedy said. He wound up at a dual-diagnosis clinic, where he could get treatment for his mental health and his addiction. I always think about the interaction Tweedy and his wife had before he left for rehab: “Are you sure you want to go?” Susie asked Jeff. “Yes,” he replied. “Anything is better than this.”

Tweedy would get better and A Ghost is Born would arrive on June 22nd as planned, though his rehab stint led to their European tour getting cancelled (Wilco was already touring the album in America before it was out). The record intentionally divided Wilco’s fanbase, especially “Less Than You Think,” which features three-minutes of Tweedy musing on belief systems (“A fist so clear and climbing punches a hole in the sky, so you can see for yourself if you don’t believe me”) before nose-diving into a 12-minute assembly of drones and noise. Each member of the band made their own synthesizer noise and they were all played at the same time in the studio during the recording. Tweedy himself called it “the track that everyone will hate” before doubling down on including it on the final cut of the album. “I know 90% of our fans won’t like that song, they’ll say it’s a ‘ridiculous indulgence,’” he explained. “Even I don’t want to listen to it every time I play through the album. But the times I do calm myself down and pay attention to it, I think it’s valuable and moving and cathartic.”

I’m not sure any word better describes A Ghost is Born than “cathartic.” Maybe “debased.” It’s a challenge to listen to, no matter what mood you’re in. If you start “At Least That’s What You Said” in a happy place, you’ll likely be soured by the time “Late Greats” finishes. The record is a white-fisted, bare-knuckled labor of not love, but of survival in its purest form. Here you have 12 songs embodying a life its maker feared he would no longer live, and those 12 songs all sound like a concerto for a death march. “Hide your soft skin, your sorrow is sunshine,” Tweedy sang on “Company in My Back,” before puncturing his own gloaming with “hissing radiator tunes” and a “steady, crushing hand.” “I will always die so you can remember me,” he lets out, referring back to “Hummingbird” with more annihilation. “They thin my heart with little things and my life with change,” he mourns on “Theologians.” “Oh, in so many ways, I find more missing every day. I’m going away where you will look for me. Where I’m going, you cannot come.”

Even as A Ghost is Born reaches a conclusion, Tweedy can’t help but sit in a resolve far more pessimistic than that of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “The best song will never get sung, the best life never leaves your lung. So good, you won’t ever know,” he lets out on “Late Greats.” What was once meant to act as a document of worthiness for two sons now without a dad quickly morphed into a bottomless aperture of self-destruction, heartache, fractured domesticity and, above all, an “ocean” of emotion, ghosts and “illiterate light.” Tweedy wrestles with his own meaning, be it through marriage, religion or addiction. The devil takes him away. God takes him away.

A Ghost is Born is a record about leaving made by somebody convinced he’d never be able to stay. It was never going to rip through the zeitgeist like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (though, thanks to The Bear’s seventh episode of season one playing all 12 minutes of the “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” live version from Kicking Television, more people have become privy to Wilco’s fifth album than ever before). It had no “Jesus, Etc.” The buildings in A Ghost is Born had already collapsed by the time we encountered them. But, in the same breath, the album told us all that the sun will rise and we’ll all climb into our cars—because, in Jeff Tweedy’s world, “the future has a valley and a shortcut around.” Telescopic poems and private beaches flow through the viaducts of melodies and our strung-out worries while winged birds fight over keys on the Lake Michigan shoreline. On A Ghost is Born, it’s good to be fooled by a kiss, so long as it’s delivered by the stone “that raises from the dead and carries us all home.”

Read our 2023 Digital Cover Story with Wilco here.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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