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Ghost in the machine (8/10)
on 13 June 2008
All the acrimony surrounding the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, in which Wilco left Warner/Reprise to resist attempts to make the record more commericially viable, seems bizarre now. For despite its moments of sonic chaos YHF is a great, Beatles-esque, countryfied pop masterpiece with great hooks and immediately indentifiable melodies. `A Ghost is Born', however, is a more genuinely uncompromising prospect, with Sonic Youth member and producer-in-chief Jim O'Rourke adding some of his other band's willfully deconstructive approach to the recording. Where YFH had the air of an album heavily - pleasingly to my ears - embellished with a wide arsenal of sonic trickery, `A Ghost is Born' has a more back-to-basics approach to experimentalism. The album unfurls in an unhurried and arguably more organic manner, with the guitar the main weapon of both dischordance and melody. On tracks like the opener `At Least that's What you Said' hushed acoustic moments and Jef Tweedy's mournful whisper give way to intense squalls of guitar that send shockwaves through the listener. It's a rawer, more expansive set that suggests a band dynamic in ways that its predecessor did not. However, lapses into ghostly near-silence, impounded by the whiter-than-white cover artwork, make it an uneasy listen. There is a blankness, a kind of textural abstraction that makes the album a little hard to grasp. It takes a few listens for the ideas and mood to make themselves apparent where a loose formlessness initially irk.
The songs themselves are not nearly is poppy as those of their predecessor, and some are so willfully obscure as to test the listeners engagement. Two long, largely instrumental passages do not really justify their length - the first `Spiders (Kidsmoke)' drifts by for ten-minutes on a largely unaltered Krautrock rhythm. The little storms improvised-sounding guitar do not sustain the attention and one wonders why such a jam should make it on the final cut of the album. Likewise, the 15-minute (!) `Less than You Think', may be an in-joke, as most of it is a shimmering drone that would test fans of John Cage. Neither of these tracks warrant their inclusion and marr an otherwise absorbing and atmospheric record.
`Muzzle of Bees' swells from breezy alt-country decorated with a lovely piano refrain into a cacophonous finale with a gorgeous spasm of guitar. `Hummingbird' is a more conventionally Wilco take on Beatles-esque pop, nicely embellished with some jaunty viola at the end. 'Handshake Drugs' slowly works its way out of a plodding non-descript start by building layers of feedback that menace and finally subsume the song in a fog of dissonance. All these tracks seem quite harmless, even bland, on first (even second) listens, but subsequently start to reveal subtle sonic shifts and careful detailing.
If a Ghost is Born is a concept album then, it is the way Wilco subvert the superficial prettiness of their songs with darker atmospheric shades, but with such a stealth to make it initially unnoticeable or ghost-like. This concept is hinted at in the cover artwork, where simple forms like eggshells and screwed-up paper resemble photos but reveal themselves on closer inspection to be very cleverly shaded drawings. The implication seems to be simple that `A Ghost is Born' is melodic pop on the surface, but there is a subtle artistry beneath. Where YFH employed similar strategies with static and radio-interference, A Ghost is Born is more restrained, and sometimes a little too subtle. Arguably Tweedy's songwriting is not on par with the earlier album, and the singing a little too innocuous where sometimes something more muscular is required.
The standout track for me is `Company in My Back', with cryptic lyrics and bittersweet musicianship. The song begins and ends with a halting loop, and the sinister undertones are reflected in the rougher edge of the Tweedy's vocals. While `I'm a Wheel' is a bog-standard rocker, `Theologians' - the de facto title track - is the kind of bluesy, Costello-esque pop, underpinned by thumping piano. The limited edition version of this album includes a handful of live tracks, which might interest completists, and two bonus tracks. One of the latter, Panthers, is easily the equal of the album tracks and probably should have been included over, say, 'Less than You Think'. The kind of spacious indie-pop augmented with simple electronics perfected by Spoon, it's better than the usual fare served up on these CDs but is the only item of interest on disc 2 for me.