Wilco fully realized their new sound on A Ghost Is Born. Rather than tagging electronic effects onto songs songs that come from somewhere else, the group is making music out of that new sound from the start. Usually that describes a band is at its peak. That may not necessarily be the case for Wilco. The good news is that A Ghost Is Born has a level of proficiency unmatched anywhere on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Wilco’s prior effort). Their new sound is a precise tool. And, from time to time, the band can still call on their cantankerous, old-timey melodic sensibilities to make a point. The bad news is that Wilco’s new proficiency has quietly extinguished some of the wonder and excitement of previous efforts. At times, the group is operating in a fairly comfortable place. There, influences run rampant. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is little more than a tribute to motorik-style krautrock (bearing an unmistakable resemblance to old Neu! songs like “Negativland” and “Neuschnee”). “Less Than You Think” is like John Cage or Morton Subotnick compositions. Retro or not, the tributes happily resound with enough wit and punch to succeed. In general, the whole album is more durable than much previous Wilco material. Its greatest charms are far from obvious on a first listen. Understated, stately, and almost uniformly inspired, A Ghost Is Born is the group’s best album yet.
Bringing in their vision of post-rock to country-tinged pop, Wilco has delivered a pretty good album here. Back a few years, comparisons to Yo La Tengo or The Sea & Cake would be laughable. Nobody would be laughing at that today. The spare arrangements make insinuations to their meaning, no more. Wilco’s preoccupation with thinking this through has let them wander into places they never expected. That is fine, except the results aren’t that punchy. The songs have to jump back occasionally when they realize what is happening about them. Too often the record is a bit light in its songwriting. The high points “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” “Jesus, Etc.,” “Pot Kettle Black,” and “Poor Places” do make quite an impact. Elsewhere, the record strays into much pretension despite what still could be called good intentions. Producer Jim O’Rourke perhaps made the mix a bit conservative. Frontman Jeff Tweedy starts out strong, but I don’t think his songwriting holds up for the entire album. This is still a fine piece of work. Perhaps, though, it’s a dead-end for Wilco who have now done all they can in this direction. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is instantly likable in a somewhat universal manner. Wilco’s real achievement here is making good music that reaches far beyond the insider niche markets where so many other ostensibly similar artists are stuck.
I found this album tremendously disappointing. Wilco spends most of the record trying to pander to the audience by over-emphasizing the sappiest elements of their music. Kicking Television is a paradigmatic attempt to appeal to an audience’s bad taste. These live recordings add nothing to the studio versions, save a few awkwardly tacked on guitar solos. There are rewarding moments, but they are lost in a sea of mediocrity.