August 2004

Wilco's Triumph

It’s safe to say that Wilco’s new disc, A Ghost Is Born [Nonesuch 79809-2], has been much anticipated. The story of how Wilco struggled in 2002 to record and release their previous disc, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is now established rock'n'roll folklore. For those who don’t know the story, a brief sketch: Wilco recorded and completed an album despite some internal dissention that led to the loss of a band member. They delivered the album to their record company, which said, "No thanks. Too weird." The band put the album on their website, where people downloaded it for free and created a buzz. Record companies got into a bidding war for distribution rights to the now popular recording and the band signed with a small subsidiary of a major label.

It’s the kind of story that rock journalists and rock'n'roll romantics like me lap up. A band stands up to a major label and wins -- and it wins with the help of downloading, which the music industry says is the cause of its financial woes. It’s also a story with an ironic ending. Wilco signed with Nonesuch, a subsidiary of the very label that chose not to pick up their recording in the first place. I read about the band’s struggle and bought the disc, even though nothing I’d heard by them up to that point really grabbed my ear.

Critics lined up to praise Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. They called it a masterpiece and compared it to the Beatles' Revolver (a little too often and a little too insistently). I began to grow suspicious, especially when none of the reviews I read actually described the music on the disc. Actually, I can’t describe it either. I’ve probably listened to YHF more times than any disc I bought in the last couple of years, but it has only pulled me in once or twice. Sometimes I let it wash over me for its full 52 minutes; sometimes I take it out of the player after 20 minutes, tired of waiting for it to gain momentum. It helps if you don’t think of it as an album like Revolver, which has great energy and pace, but think of it more as a depressed, low-key work, something like Skip Spence’s Oar or Syd Barrett’s records.

Wilco had, in fact, already created a disc that held up to a comparison with Revolver. A friend of mine gave me a copy of their third disc, Summerteeth, when YHF came out, and to my ears it’s Wilco’s masterpiece so far. It’s as sonically eccentric as YHF, but the songs lodge themselves in your memory. On Summerteeth, Jeff Tweedy, the band’s primary songwriter (although the liner notes credit the band as a whole with the songs), gave himself over to melody and wasn’t too proud to borrow from cheesy '70s AM pop if it gave him what he was looking for. The result is delightful and powerful. The lyrics are sometimes brutal, but the music has a lightness and buoyancy that make the disc both disturbing and beautiful.

A Ghost is Born contains some of Summerteeth’s pop sensibilities and a few of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s avant-garde noise experiments. For me, it helped bring the latter work into better focus. I think Tweedy’s trying to do a couple of things with Wilco. First, he wants to express some things sonically (as opposed to musically) that he feels traditional melody and lyrics alone can’t convey. Tweedy’s abstract lyrics defy quick analysis. "Muzzle of Bees" opens:

There’s a random painted highway
And a muzzle of bees
My sleeves have come unstitched
From climbing your tree

Things don’t get any easier after that. In some cases the lyrics are a little more straightforward, but Tweedy never seems to come at things directly. He’s reaching for something, perhaps in anguish, and I’m not sure he knows what it is. The sounds the band and producer Jim O’Rourke play with here appear to be attempts to evoke some of the confusion and puzzlement Tweedy is wrestling with. Tweedy plays more guitar here than in the past, and the solos sound physically difficult, as is he had to struggle to get them out. The result sounds a little like Neil Young, if Young had taken guitar lessons from Marc Ribot.

I think Tweedy’s other goal is to find something new in rock'n'roll. He formed Wilco when Uncle Tupelo, the band he started with Jay Farrar, broke up. Uncle Tupelo is often credited with starting the alt-country movement, and Wilco’s first disc seems to have followed the rules of that genre pretty closely. Being There, their second, was more varied, but much of it was still rooted in traditional rock. With Summerteeth, Tweedy opened himself up to all kinds of music and influences, embracing all of pop music. Summerteeth is defiantly not a roots record. On Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Tweedy seemed to walk away from pop music towards, well, that’s where confusion comes in for me. Is it prog rock? Avant-garde pop?

My sense is that Tweedy thinks rock'n'roll is dying and in need of some kind of resuscitation. Maybe I’m projecting. On July 5th, the 50th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s first recordings, I listened to "That’s All Right," and a few of the other songs Presley sang in Sun Studios that day. They still had an air of newness and discovery that most of today’s rock recordings lack. In its middle age, rock'n'roll has grown stodgy. Record companies sign bands that sound like every other band and push them to make records that sound exactly the way their next three will.

Young bands that have the imprimatur of today’s rock critics, such as the Strokes, the Hives, and the Vines, are exciting enough, but the music they play was new 30 years ago. Critics (many of them my age or older) who praise those bands sound like jazz writers who welcomed the neo-bop musicians of the early '80s as saviors. Nearly 25 years later, jazz has some interesting strains, but a lot of it is too formal and studied. When Jack White calls the White Stripes an "art project" you know what separates him from Iggy Pop. Pop would never have called the Stooges that and would have punched anyone who did. Still, it rings true for White, who has obviously studied punk and garage-band sounds and attitudes so he could feed them back to us -- smartly, it’s true, but somewhat at arm’s length.

Tweedy and the other members of Wilco waded into this confusion and lost their record contract. As restless as Tweedy is, it must have frustrated him to be faced with the choice of creating bland corporate product or retracing steps he’d already taken. But if on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot he turned his back somewhat on pop songwriting -- and I don’t care what anyone says, it’s not a hook-filled record -- on A Ghost Is Born he returns to it and tries to shake it up. He looks forward one minute, back the next. "Handshake Drugs" slightly fractures pop song structure. It begins as a traditional guitar and piano-based rock song with an odd synthesizer sound that peeks through occasionally before it takes the song over at slightly past the four-minute mark. The track ends in a flurry of oddly pretty, disorienting noises. "I’m a Wheel," on the other hand, is a great, ripping rock tune, pure and simple.

"I’m a Wheel" is the kind of tune that gives me faith that music built around a few chords played on guitar, bass, and drums still has plenty of life. In a much different way, so does "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," whose softly alluring synth riff and assortment of odd noises lead to a gripping, powerful guitar break, a simple descending chord run that sounds as exciting and fresh as the chords to "I Can See for Miles" did nearly 40 years ago.

There are things on A Ghost Is Born that sometimes hit me as maddenly pretentious. Other times those same things enthrall me. "Less Than You Think," which opens with a two-minute ballad and ends with 13 minutes of irritating noise, was a mistake, I think. Tweedy was trying to let us in on what it’s like to suffer migranes, and a minute would have done it. Everything else on A Ghost Is Born is a triumph. Jeff Tweedy isn’t a young man in rock'n'roll years (37 if my math is correct) and I don’t think he’s going to save or change rock'n'roll. He might inspire some kid to do it, though, and he makes records that guys my age can buy without embarrassment and be reassured there are places we’ve yet to go in this music.

...Joseph Taylor

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