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.

    Wilco - A Ghost Is Born - Back

    DE: Justin, I totally I agree with your claim that A Ghost Is Born is the record that birthed the “Wilco sound.” I think, in many ways, A Ghost Is Born is also the album Tweedy had always wanted to make. I point, specifically, to his short-lived side project Loose Fur with O’Rourke and Kotche. In 2003, post-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Loose Fur released its excellent, highly idiosyncratic self-titled debut, which was kind of an anomaly at the time in the Tweedy canon, full of krautrock jams and meandering folk songs that displayed a noisier edge.

    I think the key word here is “meandering.” Wilco have mastered the art of meandering and the album where this idea really comes to fruition is on Ghost. I’d argue that Yankee, despite its attempts at being ugly or discordant, is still a pop record. But Ghost isn’t. Its songs grow and evolve, ebb and flow. I mentioned before that Ghost is the sound of a band emotionally and physically drained after Yankee, and I think the linear, steadfast nature of krautrock totally works with this idea.

    MM: Yes, Justin, you’re right: There’s something poetic about that “Hell Is Chrome” solo. Any beginning guitar player can learn those notes in, like, two seconds, but Tweedy just owns it. It’s his.


    I heard a lot of Wilco comparisons in the talk about The War on Drugs’ excellent Lost in the Dream earlier this year. Maybe both bands have atmospheric takes on classic rock and Americana, but after that, Tweedy and co. are really hard to categorize. I’m genuinely stumped as to what to call Ghost, genre-wise. Tweedy dominates the songs that make you lean in (“Less Than You Think”, “Hell Is Chrome”), and because he is a peculiar songwriter in some ways, even those ones seem like they’re of Wilco’s own genre. I definitely detect some McCartney and Television, and the biggest influence I hear is Neil Young. But the in-song stylistic twists (“Muzzle of Bees”, for example, moves from open-road folk to fuzzy country-rock) combined with the ambient nature of the sequencing ensures that the album is never one thing for long.

    MR: I don’t think we can credit O’Rourke enough. The Chicago alternative hero is the album’s primary driving force, from pushing Tweedy on the guitar to redefining the way Wilco would experiment in the absence of Bennett. Look at his credits: piano (tracks 1, 3, 4, and 10), bass (2, 5), electric rhythm guitar (3, 6), ARP 2600 (3), acoustic guitar (4, 8), electric lead guitar (5), Korg CX-3 organ (7), loops, filters, synths (11), electric guitar (11). That’s more than a producer; that’s some George Martin shit right there.

    And looking post-Ghost, it’s not a strange coincidence that they’ve yet to match this album without him. Why is that? They worked together as Loose Fur in 2006, and he contributed somewhat to Sky Blue Sky, but he’s been notably lost ever since. I’d argue this last is why the band’s flair for adventure has been reduced to a track here and there (“Art of Almost”, “Bull Black Nova”). Basically, what I’m saying is: Come back, Jim. Is that an impossibility?


    JG: In addition to O’Rourke’s contributions, we can’t forget my boy Leroy Bach, who departed shortly after the album’s recording. He worked with the band from Summerteeth to A Ghost Is Born, and to call him merely a multi-instrumentalist is to do him a disservice. On Ghost he plays piano, organ, bass, electric and acoustic guitar, and he incorporated the all-important “vibes” (actual credit) into “Wishful Thinking”, which I will segue into now. This song starts off in chaos before drifting into a dreamlike state just before Tweedy’s voice appears. My question to my fellow listeners is this: What is happening here?

    a) Tweedy has fallen into a peaceful sleep, escaping his state of mind.

    b) Tweedy is medicating and has disappeared into a euphoric state of mind.

    c) Justin, let the song be the song.

    I’d like to think the answer is “a,” though it may very well be “b.” But what would we be without wishful thinking?

    MM: I do think that the “Wishful Thinking” intro, which immediately follows the more intense instrumental outro of “Handshake Drugs”, has a kind of symbolic weight. In fact, the more I think about it, the more the structure of the album (in addition to the songs themselves) seems to mimic an Oberst-like emotional trail. “Wishful” in particular is a relief from the tension and anxiety elsewhere, and the next track, “Company in My Back”, with its chiming guitar, might be the album’s most optimistic-sounding moment. Tweedy also sounds less vulnerable when he’s joined on backing vocals, as on “Theologians”, while the quirky garage rock of the two-and-a-half-minute “I’m a Wheel” offers a fun, sweaty burst of energy.

    wilco-newportDE: Justin, both are possible answers. At this point, though, if I am to dig into my weird knowledge of esoteric Wilco history, I think Tweedy was off painkillers. I think he even quit smoking somewhere around the recording the album. Either way, your inclination to psychoanalyze Tweedy is interesting, and I think that’s because so much of the Summerteeth/Yankee/Ghost arc warrants deep unpacking. Which brings me to this…
    We’ve talked a ton about sound on this thread, but I want to turn everyone’s attention to lyrics. Though there are common themes throughout those three records – loneliness, miscommunication, the limits of what love can do and heal – I’d argue that each one possesses a different emotional essence. I know I’ve continued to dwell on this, but I can’t help but feel that A Ghost Is Born is an “aftermath” record, a post-breakdown analysis and evaluation.
    “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” famously begins with its druggy, misanthropic smirk of an opening line– “I am an American aquarium drinker.” The beginning lyric on “At Least That’s What You Said”, by comparison, almost feels like it was extracted from one of Tweedy’s therapy sessions, and it couldn’t be further away from its precursor’s goofy, solipsistic quality. “When I sat down on the bed next to you/ You started to cry,” he sings. A few things strike me about this line. First off, it seems relatively mundane, which is noteworthy when placed up against Yankee‘s fits of grandiosity (“I’ve got reservations/ About so many things /But not about you”). Second, it manages to be introspective and revealing while also looking outward.

    Yankee, as I hinted at before, is a pretty solipsistic record; it’s evocative and beautiful but also highly abstract. Tweedy only halfthaws all the ideas out of his brain, which makes it an extra fascinating and immersive listen. But Ghost is the sound of a man trying to get outside the context of his mind. I think this is where the therapy session connection feels appropriate. Many of the songs on Ghost are pretty allegorical – “Company in My Back”, “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, “Hell Is Chrome”, “Hummingbird”, “Muzzle Of Bees” – and I think that’s just a product of Tweedy trying every method possible to work through his thoughts.

    Do you guys agree? Moreover, does anyone want to comment on how many of these songs seem to focus on small animals and insects (the “Muzzle of Bees”; the fly on “Company in My Back”; the clever creepy-crawlers on “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, et al.) and why? Like Tweedy, I’m throwing all possible explanations at the wall and seeing what sticks.

    SA: Dean, that’s an observation I’m not sure I’ve ever considered. I’m hearing a number of those, actually, and I think that goes back to what Justin and Madden were saying about how this album is a stumper for the books. I’m willing to consider that that’s a big part of why it stuck on me. Maybe it being “wildly uneven” is the reason it’s great. Just because there’s a variety of angles doesn’t mean there’s not a goldmine to unpack within each one — we just often assume that must mean an album is “erratic.” When I first started to spend more and more time with Ghost, I began to realize all these pieces are bound together by something bigger than “themes,” of which there are countless. Seems like we’ve picked out a dozen in this thread alone


    And I also think that’s what ended up turning away so many people at the door 10 years ago. A Ghost Is Born does no work for the listener. It demands they do it all themselves if they want what it offers, which at first seems too boring for it to be worth it. You know what else seems boring? An egg. It’s dull and plain and colorless. It also contains the most complex mysteries conceivable to humans. You just gotta give it time to hatch and reveal them. For me, A Ghost Is Born did better on repeat listens more than almost any other album I can remember.

    Anyway, again, words and feelings and stuff. So instead of more flowery babbling (you’ve all been great), I’d like to sign off with this video, probably my favorite performance video ever. I think it speaks for itself.

    wilco-setMR: I feel like every Wilco record is uneven, and that used to work to their benefit. Yankee is without a doubt the most cohesive of the bunch, but still, that album goes from soft to loud, driven to jangly, sympathetic to ironic, and depressing to optimistic. Summerteeth is even more ADHD in its sounds and themes, but you know, that’s just the beauty of Wilco — or, at least within this particular arc. They thrive on being eccentric, unfocused, and wild. And while that’s certainly changed over the years, that mindset still offers moments of clarity (“One Wing”) despite its (many) unnecessary obstructions (“Capital City”).


    And hey, I’d close with a video, too, but the one I want isn’t available. So, if you have Netflix, do this: Friday Night Lights, Season Two, Episode One. You’ll never hear “Muzzle of Bees” the same way again. #tears

    DC: It’s funny you mention that specific solo, Justin, because I always assumed it, along with the jolting fretwork in “At Least That’s What You Said”, came from Nils Cline. Only after looking it up a few years later did I discover that Cline didn’t join the band until after the album was released. Cline’s known for being very avant-garde in his solo work, but his arrival marked the recording of Wilco’s safest album to date: Sky Blue Sky.

    So Tweedy deserves a lot of credit for A Ghost Is Born, not necessarily for expanding what he could do on the guitar, but for not giving two shits if anyone would be pissed about its conflicting nature. As you said, Justin, it’s hard to describe what makes it work. Its catch doesn’t come from its AOR feel or its eccentricities, but a combination of those two things. Regardless of technical ability or well-treaded cliches or anything else, honesty will always be interesting, and Tweedy and co. were nothing if not honest on this record. Sure, the white noise is hard to get through, but it came from the migraines he was getting, so there’s something substantial about it.


    Tweedy took a gamble. Some people bitched about it, but some people also got through high school because of it.