It must have been a bitch to try and follow-up Wilco’s 2002 release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The album earned them almost universal praise, save for one slam by UK’s The Wire, and many publications named it “album of the year.” The label dispute that led to the mythology surrounding the album has become legendary. And now rock bands strive to make a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot of their own. In some cases, as in Beulah’s Yoko, they’ve actually come close. Needless to say, expectations were high.
On A Ghost is Born, the band’s fifth proper full-length (not counting the two Mermaid Avenue albums they made with Billy Bragg), Wilco has taken a step in a different direction, though not necessarily a step forward. Instead of taking the formula that made Foxtrot a success, they’ve discarded the blueprint and started over from scratch. What they have made is something less densely arranged and more spacious. A Ghost is Born is no less complex than its predecessor, but in a much different way. Where Foxtrot was heavily layered, Ghost finds its intricacies in the absence of sound.
From the beginning of “At Least That’s What You Said,” the most noticeable aspect of the first half of the album is what isn’t there. Hushed piano chords lay the foundation for the song’s two-minute verse, exploding into a loud crescendo. When Jim O’Rourke starts pounding on piano, the lush sound of Foxtrot returns, though only shortly. “Hell is Chrome” returns to a more muted sound, though the bouncy intro recalls Bowie’s “Oh, You Pretty Things.”
“Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is a ten-minute krautrock jam session, which contradicts the more stripped-down tone of the first half, though it does share something in common with four of them — a rather lengthy guitar solo. The only song of the first six not to feature any distorted noodling is “Hummingbird,” a piano-based Beatlesque pop song. And though Jeff Tweedy seems freer with his guitar playing of late, piano takes center stage in many of the album’s highlights.
After a re-recorded version of More Like The Moon‘s “Handshake Drugs,” the album changes course. Instead of repeating the ambiance of the first six songs, the latter six (excluding “Less Than You Think”) are shorter and more accessible. “Wishful Thinking” is one of the most gorgeous songs on the album, led by acoustic guitar and some ethereal organ. “Company in My Back” arguably has the catchiest chorus on the record (“Holy shit! There’s a company in my back“). And “Theologians” features one of the most memorable and beautiful bridges in rock music.
The aforementioned “Less Than You Think” is something of a drawback for the band, as they chose to fill twelve minutes of disc space with white noise after teasing us with a three-minute ballad. By this point in musical history, twelve minutes of buzzing seems a bit unnecessary. But that’s why skip buttons exist, and the album is hardly hindered by its removal.
The last track, “The Late Greats,” was added to Ghost‘s tracklist at the last minute, but seems like the most important song of the whole lot, even at two-and-a-half minutes. Its brevity makes it a fitting comparison to “Her Majesty,” which ended The Beatles’ Abbey Road perfectly.
What makes “The Late Greats” so crucial to this collection is its lyrics. Tweedy sings, “the best songs will never get sung/the best life never leaves your lungs…you’ll never hear it on the radio.” And that’s precisely the point. Wilco didn’t want to follow-up Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Instead they made the album they wanted to, leaving no room for unrealistic expectations. What they didn’t realize is that the album they made was every bit as impressive and beautiful as their 2002 breakthrough. Here’s to a long career of artistic surprises.
David Bowie – Hunky Dory
Loose Fur – Loose Fur
Pavement – Terror Twilight
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.