So how do you follow the dense, experimental, critically worshipped Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? The latest version of Wilco answers with an overwhelming, at times postmodern minimalism; quiet, delicate ballads tucked between raw rock ’n’ roll and hypnotic noise.
Each of the band’s albums, from the alt.country leanings of A.M. to the glimmering pop of Summerteeth and beyond, has a distinct feel, but A Ghost Is Born is the biggest departure yet. The absence of longtime member Jay Bennett—whose deteriorating relationship with frontman Jeff Tweedy was documented in the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart—has much to do with the drastic change. Gone are his complex, poppy vocal harmonies and strange keyboard textures; they’ve been replaced by the more sparse work of a new cast of characters. In fact, it seems Bennet’s 2002 collaboration with Edward Burch, The Palace at 4 A.M., has more in common with the old Wilco sound than Ghost. But perhaps even more influential than Bennet’s departure is the increased presence of multi-instrumentalist/post-classical composer/producer/Sonic Youth-member Jim O’Rourke, who mixed YHF, but plays on 11 of Ghost’s 12 tracks.
The new album’s opener, “At Least That’s What you Said,” begins with a familiarly understated piano-and-voice intro. The lyrics are vintage Tweedy—a cinematic rendering plainly capturing the contradictions of love and difficulties of communication. But the most striking thing about Ghost is that the band utilizes space and silence in ways only hinted at on previous recordings.
Two hushed minutes into the album, the music gains momentum. Enter warm, over-driven guitar and staccato drums, piano waxing dissonant. A tense, confused march erupts, eventually spilling into a steady river of rock ’n’ roll shrouded in erratic Neil Young guitar solos, where the notes aren’t so much played as ripped screaming from the reluctant strings. Stripped away are the layers of synthesizers and sound effects the band previously used to color its songs. Even when the intensity increases—noise blasts bursting above the music—there’s a tasteful restraint.
Colored silence—a musical device pioneered by avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and also used on YHF—is present on much of Ghost. Compression, hiss, barely audible feedback, radio static, amp noise and other random sounds are used to subtly alter the silent backdrop of the music, changing the mood almost imperceptibly.
On the trance-inducing “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” John Stirrat’s bass is a heartbeat—throbbing, mystic, primal—pumping life into the song. Trippy lyrics about spiders filling out tax returns (“Spinning out webs of deductions and melodies”) are followed by chromatic, psychedelic guitar solos before the band takes off on a wild tangent. Whereas most of this album’s tunes require your undivided attention, here, the music lets your mind wander. The band locks into a static one-chord jam that’s equal parts Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” and Creedence’s “Keep on Chooglin’.” But there’s a chordal hook that anchor’s everything—a recurring theme with pounding drums and super-tight, crunchy guitars. Tension builds, the chords cutting like knives before the song ends abruptly, just shy of 11 minutes.
Ghost is easily the most challenging Wilco record yet. On first listen I didn’t like it—at all. But as I listened to it again and again, I started to notice a quiet, spacious beauty emerging. After 10 or 12 listens, the music’s powerful simplicity became painfully apparent.
On “Handshake Drugs,” a vicious hook of a vocal melody emerges over a T. Rex groove. But as the song progresses, luscious, droning sheets of sound become increasingly prominent, resonating from the speakers as if plucked straight from composer Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting In A Room.” In 1969, Lucier recorded himself reading the following statement, which partially explains his experiment: “I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech…” It sounds like Wilco has borrowed this technique—recording a voice and then recording the recording, over and over, until the words have been eroded, taking them beyond language, meaning and nuance and reducing them to simple vibrations. There’s something downright haunting about this—a sonic ghost floating above the music.
As the other-worldly outro of “Handshake Drugs” fades into “Wishful thinking,” it seems as if you’re sucked inside the tubes and wires of an amplifier—a rock ’n’ roll Alice In Wonderland dwarfed by a gigantic reverb coil as one of Tweedy’s simple-yet-profound lyrics filters through: “What would we be without wishful thinking?”
But if any tune on this record’s going to generate heated discussion it’s the somber “Less than you think.” Like the aforementioned Lucier piece, the lyrics reference the musical experiment to come. “Lightly tapping / It’s high-pitched and it hums / Your spine starts to shine / And you shiver at your soul.” It’s as if the song was written in the wake of one of Tweedy’s notorious migraine’s. After a short section of piano, vocals, acoustic guitar and hammered dulcimer, it begins. Twelve minutes of slowly building, uninterrupted, high-frequency static hum. The sound of rushing electricity. It’s like Andy Warhol’s 1964 film Empire—an 8-hour-long, stationary shot of the Empire State Building. Birds occasionally fly by, and at six-and-a-half hours (what some conisder the climax) the floodlights illuminating the building go out.
Manipulating a sea of synthesizers, loops and filters, Wilco forges on into the sonic depths. A low rumble echoes below the hum. Shaking sheet-metal movie thunder. We are inside Jeff Tweedy’s headache. After six minutes, a sound resembling electronic crickets becomes prominent. Three more minutes pass and what sounds like a high-powered dental drill emerges. But how many people will bother listening to this when, at the touch of a button, they can skip to the next track? Some will even feel insulted they paid to hear this unlistenable noise. What does something like this accomplish? Well, it’s got me writing, you reading and hopefully all of us thinking about art. What are the boundaries? Should they even exist? If this is music, is dumping a can of paint on the sidewalk art?” Can one word be a poem? How about a blank sheet of paper? Like John Cage’s “4’33”—where the performer sits onstage in silence, occasionally turning through pages of sheet music—the listener’s mindset, environment and reaction will become an inseparable part of this piece. Certainly, there’s more here than meets the eye… or is there? With the song’s last line Tweedy slyly undercuts himself before the ensuing cacophony: “There’s so much less / To this than you think.”
Maybe, less pretentiously, this lengthy segment of noise has more to do with the old rock ’n’ roll adage Steppenwolf illustrated so perfectly on “Magic Carpet Ride.” Would the song’s monster-hook of a chorus sound nearly as sweet without having to sit through the mid-section’s endless organ vamp—a deer in John Kay’s wicked, Harley Davidson headlights?
After the noise of “Less Than What You Think” fades, 50 seconds of colored silence downshifts into 10 seconds of actual, dead silence. A weight is lifted from your ears. And here, at the end, Wilco delivers the joyous, anthemic “Late Greats.” With Ghost, Wilco is reborn. Wiser, yet more elusive, and further ingrained in the pop consciousness.