A look back at Wilco’s A Ghost is Born

The 27th of September marked the release of Wilco’s new album, The Whole Love. Preliminary reviews praise its willingness to experiment, as the album illustrates that Wilco continues to break new ground.

Now flash back to 2002. Wilco has just released an album that people won’t stop talking about for ten years. What is their next move? How does a band progress after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot?

The answer comes two years later: A Ghost is Born. Recorded under the working title “Wilco Happens,” the album is a testament to the band’s mercurial talent. The group subsists on evolution and reinvention. Their music is at its best when exploring new territory, when pushing emotional buttons as well as the limits of sonic appeal.

With A Ghost is Born, Wilco deviates from the alternative country influences that marked A.M. and Being There. It lacks the coherence of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. While concerns surrounding Jeff Tweedy’s health postponed the release of A Ghost is Born by two weeks, it did little to detract from its positive reception.

A few months before the album came out, Tweedy became addicted to painkillers as a result of a voluntary stint in a Chicago rehab clinic. The anxiety, depression and migraines he suffered while recording A Ghost is Born greatly influenced the tone and content of the album.

Many lyrics speak to the subject of self-definition, and Jeff Tweedy is quoted as saying he “wanted to make an album about identity, and within that is the idea of a higher power, the idea of randomness, and that anything can happen, and that we can’t control it.” 

Developing identity in the face of this randomness is a painful process more often than not and we experience this in the music and Jim O’Rourke’s production. Ghost is full of hairpin turns and jarring changes in tone.

The opening track, “At Least That’s What You Said,” begins melodically, but its descent into discordant syncopation alerts listeners to expect the unexpected.

This is not something new for Wilco. The song recalls the opening tracks of earlier albums, particularly the vacillating musical intensity of Being There’s “Misunderstood” and the dark emotion of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”

The rest of the album stays true to the promise of inconsistency. Songs like “Hell is Chrome” and “Muzzle of Bees” are straightforward tracks with pleasant guitar parts and vocal melodies that are easy to follow, and sometimes easy to forget. Other tracks, like “Hummingbird” and “Company In My Back,” have a more energetic, engaging mix of rhythms and sounds. “Hummingbird” treats listeners to a rhythmic, simple piano overlaid by the occasional, immaculately placed guitar or sweep of strings.

“Handshake Drugs,” like a few other tracks on the album, start out one way and end another. The curious, highly experimental “Less Than You Think” shares this trait.

As Tweedy predicted, the song was met with some criticism. But Tweedy was correct to include it. First of all, Wilco has earned the right to share its experiments with the public. If anything, it is a mark of the band’s realistic self-perception as a group of artists who, like anyone else, are prone to growing pains.

Second, the track, like their new album The Whole Love, is valuable and comforting proof that the band has not lost its curiosity. “Less Than You Think” shows Wilco is still interested in being a dynamic, adaptive musical project.

As the lyrics to “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” imply, Wilco admirably refuses to become passive about its musicianship: “Why can’t they say what they want / Why can’t they say what they mean / Come clean, listen and talk.”

The band, Tweedy especially, refuses the comforting lull of consistent success. And the music is better for it.

* Anne Kilfoyle, MXDWN