I don’t think there’s a more divisive Wilco record than A Ghost Is Born(maybe Wilco(The Album)). It was a record filled with claustrophobic silence, whispered musical intentions, and the sound of numbed pain. It was the record where people asked “What’s going on with Jeff Tweedy’s voice?” Well I asked it, anyways. It felt both pared down in comparison to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, yet it also felt like depression and paranoia on a grander, denser scale than they’d ever done previously. It was the first time “krautrock” was ever placed as a label on anything these Chicago rockers ever did. There was a 15 minute track that had 14 minutes of nothing but buzzing and what sounded like a fan getting ready to go out in a window unit air conditioner. It was the first album released by Wilco that didn’t feature their studio wizard and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett. It’s also the only album recorded with multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach, which is a shame as I think Bach really added an abstract lean on their music that they haven’t had since.
In other words, A Ghost Is Born is a once in a career kind of record that never gets repeated again and is either loved or loathed by longtime fans and the general music lover alike.
Me? On any given day it’s one of my favorite records; not only of Wilco’s output but of anyone’s output. I can’t in all honesty say it towers over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Summerteeth, and Being There as those three records have very personal and emotional significance to me. But I can honestly say that over the last four or five years I’ve listened to A Ghost Is Born more than any other Wilco album. Like Loose Fur’s first record, A Ghost Is Born feels like a basement album. It feels like the kind of record a teen in 1975 would’ve ridden home from school to listen to in a dank, dark basement and gotten suitably high in the process. Beanbag chair, Scott receiver humming, Denon turntable spinning, and “Spiders(Kidsmoke)” blaring through a pair of Pioneer speakers as a haze of weed filled the suburban hole. Loose Fur(Jeff Tweedy, Jim O’Rourke, and Glen Kotche side project) and Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born feel like connected spirits as far as albums go. They both reveal an experimental side of Tweedy that not even the tinkling, gurgling, fuzz-covered YHF could reveal. AGIB was like this inverted experimentation. By not covering everything with a million different layers of synths and guitars they end up leaving the songs bare and breathing. There’s a claustrophobic feeling in the quiet interludes of songs like “Muzzle of Bees” and “Wishful Thinking”. There are details but they’re lying there in the song uncovered, at any moment a swift wind could blow them off the tape onto which they were recorded. The only thing holding these ideas down are the heavy air in Sear Sounds studio. Even lyrically it’s a cryptic scroll of words that while Tweedy had experimented with abstract wordplay before there was still an element of what he was getting at. Loneliness, isolation, love, loss, and fear were subjects mined and explored on Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and written rather poetically. A Ghost Is Born felt like more of a stream-of-consciousness kind of writing. “At Least That What’s You Said” and “Handshake Drugs” felt more obvious in the storytelling, and “Hummingbird” painted pretty abstractions and a melancholy loneliness surrounded by an almost Sail Away-era Randy Newman jauntiness that made you want to sing along every time you heard it. But then you have a song like “Company On My Back” with its disjointed music and those lyrics: “I attack with love/pure bug beauty, I curl my lips and crawl up to you” ; then in the chorus “I move so slow/steady crushing hand/holy shit there’s a company in my back”. These weren’t typical words to a typical song. Maybe they were words from a mind not right, but had the mind been right we may have not gotten such genius. I’m glad Jeff Tweedy got right and kicked the bad habits, but while he was in the thick of addiction and paranoia he gave us some compelling and beautiful art.
On Tuesday June 21st, 2004 I hit a local retail store at 9am and grabbed a copy of AGIB before going to work. I couldn’t wait for 5:30pm to get off work and go to the local music store. It was imperative that I had that CD to play during the entire day. And I did play it all day. I’d heard a snippet of “Hummingbird” online and fell in love immediately. But I had no idea what I was in for. “Hummingbird” was the anomaly on AGIB. The rest of the album was uncharted territory for both Wilco and myself. Hell, I didn’t even know what “krautrock” or “motorik beats” were prior to this album. I thank this album for opening my mind to band’s like Television and NEU!. I also think this record spoiled me as far as pop music goes. After this record I wanted everything after it to be denser, headier, and with more substance. This was the basement record for my generation. It’s hard to look back once you fall under the spell of an album like A Ghost Is Born. I’ve since gotten my taste for pop confections back, but Wilco opened my mind to new musical landscapes and possibilities. In two albums they went from a melancholy pop masterpiece like Summerteeth to A Ghost Is Born. That’s no easy feat, at least as far as where I’m sitting.
One more thing before I let this dog lie and I spin A Ghost Is Born for the 1,000th time. This album was also the album where I fell in love with Wilco the live band. My wife and I went to see Wilco at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago in October of 2004. We’d gotten a room at the Hilton on Wacker Drive and could walk a block to the show, though my wife was about four months pregnant with our son at the time so the walking was set to a minimum(swollen ankles, you know.) The band was amazing. We’d seen them twice prior to this show, but with the addition of Nels Cline, Mikael Jorgensen, and Pat Sansone the band became this “entity”. This “thing”. The songs off A Ghost Is Born became completely new creatures. Bigger, more open, and they were made much easier to love live. By this time I’d grown an affinity for the recorded versions of songs like “Hell Is Chrome”, “Wishful Thinking”, and “Theologians”, but the live versions were like having a light shed on something lost in darkness and doubt. We went on to see Wilco a total of four times while they toured this record and each time it was an amazing show and each time those songs became something slightly further from the core album verisons. I’ve come to think that they’ve lost some of that dark, desperate isolation that made the album versions so intense and one-of-a-kind. That numbed pain had subsided and what seemed to remain after a good two years of touring these songs was just scar tissue. But hey, to each his own.
So there you have it, Wilco’s “dark passenger” known as A Ghost Is Born is now ten years old. That means I’m ten years older from when I bought it on that sunny June morning in 2004. I can honestly say I’ve aged pretty damn well since then. I think 40 fits me better than 30 ever did. Or 20 for that matter. A Ghost Is Born is wearing ten years pretty damn well, too. In fact, it’s only gotten better due to the fact that there hasn’t been another album like it from Wilco. It’s a one-of-a-kind record that will only get better as the years pass by.
It’s definitely my favorite record today. Probably tomorrow, too.