A Ghost Is Born is not an album that I look back on with fond memories. It is an album that I once found pretentious, obnoxious and only mildly enjoyable. This is an album that, for the me of 2008 who listened to whatever rubbish was on the radio, pushed a few too many boundaries and took me way out of my comfort zone. A Ghost Is Born showcases a band that is determined to not retreat into the safety of its former, alt-country self, but to press onwards and capitalise on the cacophony of noise that made their 2002 release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, so enjoyable. The album manages to be incredibly varied, with no two songs even sounding remotely alike. Although much of the work is experimental, there are a few softer, more intimate pieces… that soon devolve into clamouring drums and wailing guitar riffs. I mean that as a compliment, though. Really.
The album’s opener, At Least That’s What You Said, starts things off benignly enough, with nothing more than a piano and Jeff Tweedy’s voice crooning about a loveless relationship where both participants keep coming back for more. After around two-and-a-half minutes of lulling the listener into a false sense of security, the piano ends, the lyrics fade out, and are replaced by a blazing electric guitar, which is soon joined by a strong bass lead-in and drumbeats that wouldn’t sound out of place on a straight rock album.
The second track, Hell Is Chrome, starts out much the same as its predecessor. The instrumental section in the middle of the piece leads up to a heavily distorted, piercing guitar, before winding back down to welcome the piano once again. The minimalistic presentation of these first two tracks is deceiving, as the noble beast that is Spiders (Kidsmoke) kicks in.
This is where the magic happens. The first 75 seconds of the song are composed of the same running guitar, the same drumbeat, the same thrumming bass… and that’s it. The lyrics are so bizarre that they allow you to become mesmerised. The song quite merrily meanders along, lyrical interludes ensuring that the driving melody never becomes tiresome. Thankfully, the monotony is broken by slowly building break outs of enthusiastic guitar riffs and equally joyous vocals. This was the song that I had an absolute hatred for in my early listenings. “How could anyone like something so repetitive?” I thought. I have come to understand that the song has an incredibly cheeky vibe, and after repeated listenings it only gets better.
The album is not without its flaws. Sometimes the will to be different comes across as pretentious, like the two minute instrumental outro in Handshake Drugs, or the 12 minutes of gradually layered ambient noise that sends off Less Than You Think. It’s a shame, because these songs are amazing before these instances. Although I don’t think I’ll ever appreciate the step too far that is the ambient noise, Less Than You Think is the most striking song on the album. Much like At Least That’s What You Said, the song relies on nothing more than a piano and Tweedy’s voice. While the song does indeed amount to less than you’d expect from a 15 minute song, it falls down when it becomes more than I’d care to listen to.
Muzzle of Bees is the highlight of the album, as it manages to combine the best of the tracks that have come before it. It starts off with a single acoustic guitar, soon joined by a second, providing a welcome change of pace from the songs that came before. Tweedy’s soft singing comes in, and is accompanied by a piano running a half-marathon at a languid pace. The bass is laid back, a single thrum being heard rarely but consistently enough to be acknowledged. Just when you are lulled into a false sense of security thinking “maybe this won’t turn into an assault of noise”, the lyrics fade out, the electric guitar and bass have one last goodbye, only to clash with distorted blaring while the piano strikes chords of its own. Despite this return to chaos, it feels well-structured, so that it’s not so much jarring as it is a pleasant change of pace.
Another highlight is Theologians, a tightly-produced piece that shows Wilco can in fact produce a piece without experimental outbursts. I’m A Wheel wins the award for cheekiest song on the album, as it is nothing more than a straightforward rock song. It features all the staples of such a track: fast-paced guitar riffs accompanied by equally hectic drumming, an upbeat chorus and generally sensical lyrics. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Wilco song without some level of strangeness, and Tweedy somehow manages to twist his voice into the sound of a kettle boiling during one of the instrumental phases. Although significantly toned down in terms of experimentation, tracks such as these are necessary to prevent the listener from collapsing from noise-induced fatigue.
Unfortunately, the last track on the album, The Late Greats, fails to be particularly engaging. It features none of the experimental flair of that which has come before it, nor does it have interesting lyrics to allow it to soar to great heights. It’s not intolerable, it’s just disappointing considering the level of uniqueness that went into the rest of the album.
While A Ghost Is Born is by no means a perfect album, it still manages to be a unique, highly polished work. Its use of ambient and musical noise that would feel grating and annoying on any other album, here it feels like a worthwhile flourish of creativity. Even when it crosses into more conventional territory, it manages to provide a breath of fresh air from the ambitious experimentation. In producing an album based heavily on blaring guitars, deep lyrics and ambient noise, Wilco have created something that will not cause a ghost to be born, but rather will cause your soul to revive.