Share
Resequence: Wilco: A Ghost is Born

Resequence: Wilco: A Ghost is Born

A Ghost Is Born is a really difficult album to love. One of our writers tries to fix that.

A Ghost Is Born is a really difficult album to love. On paper, it should be great, a continuation of Wilco’s adventurous spirit following their unexpected breakthrough with the cause celebre that was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Rather than build on its predecessor, though, Ghost takes some of the aesthetic qualities of YHF and applies them to a collection of songs that doesn’t suit them at all. This is perhaps best born out in Wilco’s live shows, which usually feature a good amount of Ghost songs without the grey aural fog that weighs them down on the record. Unfortunately, since I am but a humble writer and not a producer given access to the master tapes, a remix is out of the question.

What we can do, though, is clean up an album that, for whatever merits it had, was both far too long and featured too many underwritten songs to be the sort of artistic achievement that YHF already was. As it exists, A Ghost Is Born is confused, splayed out without much coherence. While that was an accurate reflection of Jeff Tweedy’s mental state while writing the album, this version supposes what a clean, sober and focused Tweedy could have put together.

Tracklist:

1. “Hummingbird”
2. “The Late Greats”
3. “Theologians”
4. “A Magazine Called Sunset”
5. “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard”
6. “Handshake Drugs”
7. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”
8. “At Least That’s What You Said”
9. “Cars Can’t Escape”
10. “Wishful Thinking”
11. “More Like the Moon”

Added tracks: “A Magazine Called Sunset,” “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard,” “Cars Can’t Escape,” “More Like the Moon”

Omitted tracks: “Hell Is Chrome,” “Muzzle of Bees,” “Company on My Back,” “I’m A Wheel,” “Less Than You Think”

1. “Hummingbird”

Originally, A Ghost Is Born opened on one of its darkest moments and didn’t let up for a while. This time, we’re opening with the brightest song on the original album, one of the best pieces of pure Beatles-esque pop that Tweedy ever wrote. The emotional journey for this album is going to start in a happy place, though as Tweedy’s lyrics hint at, that happiness may be a facade under which something more upsetting lurks.

2. “The Late Greats”

As insubstantial as this song is at its core, the melody is too undeniably cheery and catchy to serve as an attempted palate-cleanser after an unlistenable noise dirge. Here, the album moves from pop to something resembling the country-rock stylings of the Wilco of old, albeit filtered through a different sensibility. It’s a charming song deserving of more of a spotlight than it initially got.

3. “Theologians”

That darkness is still creeping, though, and “Theologians” works as an attempt by Tweedy to beat it back. Here, the guitar is properly introduced as the focus of the album, marking Ghost as something more inherently organic and band-focused than the studio magic of YHF. While it hints at the sort of vintage soul that Tweedy would explore further on his collaborations with Mavis Staples, it’s a rock song through and through, but rock may not be enough to beat back the demons.

4. “A Magazine Called Sunset”

This might be the best song Wilco ever wrote that didn’t end up on an album, instead shunted away on the online-only More Like The Moon EP to fade into relative obscurity. In comparison to the muted presentation of the Ghost material, “Sunset” is vibrant and full of life, a perfect piece of studio pop with Tweedy acting as a folk-tinged Brian Wilson in crafting such gorgeous harmonies.

5. “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard”

Another melodic beauty, albeit in a simpler, more sparse form. This More Like The Moon track further hints at Wilco attempting to incorporate their rootsier elements into their newfound experimental nature, something that Ghost strives for but ultimately failed to achieve. This is a better example of what could be done, and it’s just damn pretty.

6. “Handshake Drugs”

Now things start to get a little weird. This song has become a live staple for the band since it came out, and while the studio version doesn’t quite match the power it has onstage, it’s still pretty impactful. This is the first instance of Tweedy’s krautrock fascination popping up on the album, and it’s the best melding of motorik rhythms and free-flowing guitars on the album so far…

7. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”

…until we get to the very next song. This is where the tension properly comes in, as the band ride a paranoia-inducing beat for over 10 minutes while Tweedy and Leroy Bach make ungodly noises come out of their guitars. Even when the tension is released in the booming chorus, it only serves as a brief respite. Even as its lyrics are Tweedy at his most deliberately obtuse and abstract, the tension here is palpable.

8. “At Least That’s What You Said”

This should be the comedown after the total chaos of “Spiders,” but we’re not out of the woods yet. As an album opener, this set up the listener for the bleakest Wilco album of all time, but that promise was never fulfilled. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a powerful song: the way the band plays with dynamics, going from Tweedy’s barely-whispered vocals to wailing, skronking guitars with a deft touch is simply masterful.

9. “Cars Can’t Escape”

Look, we could theoretically make a whole album out of songs Wilco wrote and recorded during Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that didn’t make the final album, but that’s not the goal of this piece. As a nod to this treasure trove of unreleased material, this version of Ghost includes the most emotionally raw song from those sessions. The full band version isn’t as devastating as the original recording with Tweedy and a piano, but this version is very much more in line with what the band were trying out circa 2004. Either way, it’s a great song that deserved to be heard by more than the most devoted of Wilco fans.

10. “Wishful Thinking”

Most of A Ghost is Born only barely conceals Tweedy’s inner turmoil and despair under the surface, so the sort of subtle sweetness that permeates “Wishful Thinking” always felt a little weird. Here, though, it can serve as a light at the end of the tunnel, a sign that the hard times will eventually end. A wistful number that manages not to feel as insubstantial as some of the other tracks on Ghost, “Wishful Thinking” could be the most underrated song on the original album, and it remains a highlight on this version.

11. “More Like the Moon”

Rather than ending with frivolity, let’s instead end with a song that instills some hope while acknowledging the strife that came before. Wilco are at their best when working in a bittersweet mode, and this alt-country throwback fits that mood to a tee. It’s oddly soothing without necessarily falling into the classic-rock cliches that they would eventually stumble into, though the song does predict the current, low-key version of what the band would become. In that sense, the album ends with a path towards the future.

Omitted Tracks:

“Hell Is Chrome”

There’s an attempt at creating something inspired by country or gospel music here, but the song is just too structureless to have the impact that it’s clearly intended to have. “Hell Is Chrome” isn’t so much a song as it is a few ideas stitched together to reach song length. Given some of the material Tweedy was kicking around, it’s shocking that this made the final cut.

“Muzzle of Bees”

Like “Hell Is Chrome,” “Muzzle of Bees” feels too directionless to really stand up to Wilco’s best work. Worse still, this is where Tweedy’s abstract lyrical approach works against him. The melody and arrangement clearly indicate something lilting and gorgeous, but his lyrics don’t play into that or subvert it in a meaningful way; it’s just a bunch of nonsense words. It’s as if Tweedy wrote placeholder lines to work out the melody and just left them there.

“Company on My Back”

Honestly, this isn’t a bad song, but both it and “Theologians” feel so similar in style and composition that having them both on the album feels a little redundant. It does have some of the more direct expressions of Tweedy’s struggle with migraines, though I can’t imagine anyone wanted to think about him puking again after seeing it in the I Am Trying To Break Your Heart documentary.

“I’m A Wheel”

I’m different from a lot of Wilco fans in that I don’t really like when they try to be a capital “R” rock band. Thus, “I’m A Wheel,” with its bone-dumb riff and its insistence on rhyming “nine” with “nein,” is my own personal hell. I’d argue it’s the worst song that Wilco ever wrote, and while the majority of the band’s fans would disagree, I’m happily leaving it on the cutting room floor.

“Less Than You Think”

Let’s be honest, has anyone actually listened to this the whole way through? Even Tweedy himself has admitted that “Less Than You Think” is more of an endurance test than an actual song, and there’s nothing especially rewarding at the end of it. Were it part of a whole noisy prank album, a la Metal Machine Music, I’d be more forgiving. But to put it on an album with some actual songs–many of them great–is insulting.

Listen to Kevin’s version here:

Leave a Comment