Dusting ‘Em Off: Wilco – A Ghost Is Born

Ten years ago, Jeff Tweedy jumped over one hell of a career hurdle.


    This week’s Dusting ‘Em Off shoots back to June 2004, when Wilco followed up its 2001 critical darling, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, with their successful, if not slightly polarizing, fifth studio album, A Ghost Is Born. To celebrate the album’s 10th anniversary, Consequence of Sound‘s Steven Arroyo, Dan CaffreyMichael RoffmanJustin Gerber, Mike Madden, and Dean Essner all revisited a time when the odds were really against Tweedy and help came from a strange and mysterious local neighbor.

    Steven Arroyo (SA): Well, this is weird. I suppose there’s no easy way to do this, but it’s been a decade, so no better time than now. Here’s the deal: No album has ever managed to stir up thoughts or feelings of the magnitude that A Ghost Is Born did within me in my late teens. It’s what led me through those years. It’s what led me into writing about music. It is the reason I made it through high school at all. A Ghost Is Born is – and since you don’t get to be 18 twice, I’m guessing will always be – that album for me. The one.


    Needless to say, this has just as much to do with it hitting in the right place at the right time as it does with being damn near perfect. Guys, if everyone could please just come back into the room and have a seat for a minute – I’m not actually going to sit here and try to defend this as history’s or rock’s best album. And I know better than to pressure myself into trying to sufficiently defend an opinion like that in a forum like this; some music sparks things within you that an email chain has a negligible chance at doing justice, especially when it comes to that age.

    Rather, for the sake of fruitful discussion, here’s my submission: Despite coming right after they lost their most versatile musician in Jay Bennett and right before they secured their most stable lineup with Nels Cline and Pat Sansone, A Ghost Is Born is, by far, Wilco’s finest hour. Who’s with me?

    Justin Gerber (JG): I hear you, Steven, but I can’t sign on entirely. I do believe, however, that A Ghost Is Born is one of their finest hours and that they haven’t had as fine an hour since. The record landed immediately for me, with the quiet brutality of “At Least That’s What You Said”. I’m a sucker for freak-out jam sessions, and this is Jeff Tweedy’s finest moment in that regard. He had never before, nor has he since, performed with such a frenzy as he does on this track. Chalk it up to a combination of pressure to surpass Yankee and carry on sans Bennett, but Tweedy takes control of his destiny and becomes the center of the circle he defines the band as needing (according to Bennett, in the I Am Trying to Break Your Heart documentary).


    Steven, I do agree with your “hitting the right place at the right time” statement. That’s how I feel about music in general, above all other art forms. How many bands do we still listen to because we discovered them as we were awkwardly making our way through high school? If we discovered them today, would we feel the same?


    Dan Caffrey (DC): Good point. While the album sounds great in retrospect, I remember a lot of fans kind of hating on it at the time, especially for the 15-minute squall of “Less Than You Think”. I know it’s weird to start off by talking about its most maligned track, but it captures the album in a nutshell: roots rock rubbed up against some of the band’s greatest experimentation at that point. Many thought the album was indulgent and took certain flourishes too far, but I disagreed and disagree now. For me, A Ghost Is Born showed Wilco’s versatility even more than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth, simply because it’s always under a dual mentality. The band wasn’t afraid to rapidly switch gears in one song. So, with that in mind, did you enjoy the wild-versus-traditional exposition when the record was first released? If so, does it hold up for you? If not, has it grown on you, especially given Wilco’s greater foray into more conventional territory with Sky Blue Sky onward?

    JG: Regarding “Less Than You Think”, Dan, that comes down as more of a sequencing issue for me. If this track and “The Late Greats” switched places, or if “The Late Greats” was a secret track at the end of “Less Than You Think”, or if “The Late Greats” ended up as a B-side somewhere else, I wouldn’t have such a problem with the extended outro. It should be the final track on the album. The meat of the song is great. It’s the lame vegetables that make up its ending I can always do without.


    By the way, “Lame Vegetables” would be a great punk band name.

    Dean Essner (DE): A Ghost Is Born is a brilliant record by itself, but when placed alongside Yankee Hotel Foxtrot it gets even more interesting. Yankee is commonly referred to as the apex of Wilco’s career, and I don’t dispute that. I don’t even think Tweedy himself would dispute that. Therefore, there’s a barren aura that pervades throughout Ghost, as if the prior record purged Tweedy and co. of everything: their best ideas, their deepest emotions, their most exciting sonic flourishes. Remember: With “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, Yankee begins with a swirling barrage of drone noises. And they’re evocative, but they’re not necessarily human. Ghost, in contrast, begins with a few soft piano chords. It’s a sound that situates the record as the morning-after hangover to Yankee’s buzzy, fuzzy drug trip.

    So, to cycle back to Dan’s claim about Ghost showing more versatility than Yankee and Summerteeth: I don’t necessarily agree or disagree. All three are excellent records that set out to do different things, which help them work excellently in dialog with each other: Summerteeth is lovelorn pop with its edges frayed, Yankee is the moment of experimental clarity, and Ghost is the foggy, exhausted finale of the trilogy. The band has emptied themselves out. “Less Than You Think” is literally what it sounds like to be brain dead. And I mean that in the absolute best way possible.

    wilco-2004Michael Roffman (MR): I’m basically roasting melos at Steven’s camp, but gimme a second to digress. For some idiotic reason, I always thought there was a split between Wilco and Spoon, where listeners opted for one or the other. My allegiance was with Spoon, writing off Wilco until I heard “Company in My Back”, specifically the first chorus (“I move so slow…”) and the way that piano softly strikes down. It felt cinematic in a way that I hadn’t really attributed to most acts at the time, and from there, I moved within A Ghost Is Born, warming up to “Theologians” and “Muzzle of Bees”. Back then, and even now, the drawn out experimental addendums never phased me; in fact, as a clumsy student of Sonic Youth and Television, I really, really obsessed over those areas. Fun fact: It wasn’t until I started visiting Chicago in 2005 that I actually discovered Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth, which I go back and forth on with this album as my favorite.


    So, much like Steven, this one has always had a personal stronghold over me, but more recently, I’ve come to really appreciate this one for different reasons. Maybe it’s because I’m 30 years old and about to get married and lines like “Half of it’s you, half is me” have me thinking more like Tweedy than, say, the reckless tinkering of the late Bennett, who I once associated with personally. Or, it could just be that there’s more of a variation, a switching of gears as Caffrey pointed out, to this album than anything they issued previously — although, I can’t really go full nelson with that argument since Summerteeth is all over the place. So, let’s go with the adult route, which is to say, this is the beginning of Wilco’s adulthood, their most mature album then and, really, since.

    It’s this odd bridge between the youthful twentysomething adventures of Yankee or Summerteeth and the tomfoolery of graying musicians enjoying classic rock (Sky Blue Sky), attempting irony (Wilco (The Album)), and dealing with creative confusion (The Whole Love). I’d include Being There and AM, but I still feel like those two albums were the aural equivalent of a team shaking off some nerves (meaning Uncle Tupelo). And as Justin pointed out, this was their last finest hour, which also may have something to do with its luster. Though, was it actually a critical smash at the time? Pitchfork, who awarded Yankee a rare 10, wasn’t so thrilled. In his 6.6 review, Rob Mitchum called it a “wildly uneven album” and “less cohesive than any other Wilco release.” Ha, I’d love to hear what he thinks of every release of theirs since.

    Michael Madden (MM): A Ghost Is Born is one of my favorite Wilco albums alongside Yankee and the first Mermaid Avenue, but at nearly 70 minutes, I’m glad it wasn’t my first Wilco album. The reason I had any patience for it at all is because, after finding Yankee on innumerable recommendation lists, I had been determined to figure out what was so brilliant about that album. It was only after a couple-three listens that I started to “get” “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and the rest of the 11 tracks. Today, after a few years as a Wilco fan (and having seen them live once), I think Tweedy is at his best when it sounds like it took him a while to figure out the shape of a given song. Maybe the reason I’m not a big Summerteeth fan is because it’s more relaxed. Ghost, by comparison, sounds more claustrophobic. I have a hunch that’s a big part of why someone (e.g., Steven) would be able to connect with this album big-time on more than just a musical basis. The honeyed “Hummingbird” is particularly relatable in lonely moments: “His goal in life was to be an echo/ Riding alone, town after town, toll after toll.” I hear a similar (albeit first-person) longing in other songs that are somehow nomadic, such as Bob Dylan’s “I’m Not There (1956)”.


    I also love this album on a musical level. It’s experimental thanks to its detours, but the band and producer Jim O’Rourke worked wonders in collating these ideas. If the album lacks cohesion, it doesn’t really bother me. “Handshake Drugs” is a particularly warm mix of strums, piano, and bass conducive to headphones listening, and those last couple minutes, when Tweedy steps away from the mic and the thing just unfurls, transitioning into “Wishful Thinking”‘s own drone, are perfect for the album’s pace. Meanwhile, the pulse of the 10-minute third song, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, although I think it should be later in the album’s running order, does a good job establishing tension. That main riff, one of the band’s most recognizable, is the payoff, but it’s surprisingly replayable in spite of its length. But what about you guys? More thoughts on the production?

    SA: Justin, I’m glad you spoke up about the ending. While I won’t defend all the sequencing, I’ll always defend those last two tracks exactly as they are. To end on “Less Than You Think” is too obvious to me, too equivocal on their important choice to include a 15-minute drone — it would say “go ahead and stop listening after the songs if you want” instead of “if you want to consume our album as we intended it, you will listen to this all the way through.” And then when you do, you get “The Late Greats”, this short, featherlight, super happy rock song about an undiscovered gift about to be buried under the sands of time, which is just about the saddest shit I can think of. It’s a fucking brilliant decoy, and its placement reminds me of The Beatles’ “Her Majesty”, The Wrens’ “This Is Not What You Had Planned”, Guided by Voices’ “You’re Not an Airplane”, or Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Untitled” (penultimate song, but similar function: heaviness, heaviness, heaviness, heavinesss, BOOM grace.) And yet I’ve heard it called some variation on “just OK” countless times.


    I loved that. That’s like looking into a serial killer’s dead eyes and mistaking him for a boring person. This whole album was built around that very bait and switch. For instance: After that tedious first verse on “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, that staccato, instrumental first hook kicks (four minutes in!), and it’s like the moment you turn your back and he nonchalantly stabs your foolish ass. Then the next hook drops that staccato for this guitar rampage effect, like he’s just set fire to the city and is now casually strolling through downtown while everyone around him runs away screaming. “There’s no blood on my hands/ I just do as I am told” — he sounds dead inside. Gives me Ledger-as-Joker-level chills.


    Guys, please, just come back here again for a sec — I’m not trying to glorify sociopathy. What I hear is a guy completely numbed out from the assault of depression, physical pain (chronic migraines his whole life), painkiller addiction, and simply turning the corner into middle age. A Ghost Is Born is his response, and his approach is perfect. He (with much credit due to O’Rourke and Glenn Kotche, his Loose Fur brain trust) crafts this contrast between the sonic — which always translates something huge like the terror of a panic attack in the “What You Said” guitar freak-out, or the weight of fatherhood in “Muzzle of Bees”, or the pain of a migraine in the “Less Than You Think” screeches, or the relief of opiates in the awesome-bassline-crossfading-into-static-noise nod-off to close “Handshake Drugs” (hell yeah, Mike M.) — and his voice, doing the exact opposite the whole time. It rarely deviates in intensity from this lukewarm groan. Restraint speaks more than screams or whispers, and Tweedy’s gives these songs so, so much weight.

    JG: Shortly after the release of Ghost, an ex-girlfriend of mine asked me to define Wilco’s music. I attempted to do so, but ultimately couldn’t figure out what to say. If Yankee didn’t do the trick, then this was definitely the album that gave birth to the “Wilco sound.” Wilco ceased sounding like other bands. Other bands started sounding like Wilco.

    That doesn’t mean the influences aren’t evident on Ghost. There’s a bit of Television in Tweedy’s guitar work, which if I haven’t made abundantly clear by now is my favorite in the Wilco catalog. Krautrockers Kraftwerk are within the mainframe of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”. “Hummingbird” could have appeared on an early ’70s McCartney solo effort. All of this makes it that much more difficult when trying to describe Wilco to someone unfamiliar with the band.


    Can someone talk about that moment at 2:50 in “Hell Is Chrome”, please? What a simple yet highly effective solo by Mr. Tweedy.