So this is it — the last column of the year. Ah, these last four years have been glorious, haven’t they? Remember that time when so and so did this and we all laughed? Me neither, and even if I did, I would most likely have preferred to have forgotten it. Since not one morsel of sentimentality inhabits these bones, I refuse to reminisce about that time, period. Actually, I have one more semester, so most of you will still have to deal with me in the fall. Nevertheless, like most of those actually graduating, the future remains bleak, blank and sometimes just plain black.
The summer frightens me especially. My ambition has atrophied considerably over the years, and as a result I have no plans, nor do I have any plans to make plans. In addition to this, I just don’t care. But enough about that. Musically, the summer fills me with immense anticipation for one special reason: Wilco’s “A Ghost Is Born” comes out June 22. Truthfully, it was supposed to be released on the 8th, but Jeff Tweedy had to check into rehab for what may be the most inculpable drug addiction in rock history. His addiction to painkillers stems from the pills prescribed to him for his horrible migraines, and all of this is validated in the fantastic documentary “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” After biting my lip for a month due to my illicit acquisition of the album, I can now discuss it. Thankfully, like “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (their last LP), the band has decided to stream the audio from its Web site, wiping clean my already-anemic conscience.
The big question on everybody’s mind is whether or not this album holds up to the masterful YHF. Seeing as I truly have nothing to lose at this point, I’m going to be the first to step out onto a limb and say YES. Crucify me later if you wish, but I will also say that this album is EVEN BETTER. Tweedy and Co. consistently amaze me in their determination to abstain from any form of repetition in their recorded work. No album sounds completely like its predecessor. “A Ghost Is Born” picks up some of the Kraut and noise influences from the last album, but takes them to astonishing heights, the likes of which have never come to fruition on any other Wilco album.
The opening track, “At Least That’s What You Said,” contains some of the most mesmerizing guitar playing in recent memory. Tweedy somehow becomes more Neil Young than Neil Young. His reckless bursts of noise melt perfectly with the song’s simplicity, which allows him to indulge in the distortion’s inherent chaos. At times his playing seems about to careen into oblivion, and then he finally reveals his control and restraint as he pulls back into the melody. For those of you who loved the squawk of YHF’s “I’m The Man Who Loves You,” be prepared to meet its joyfully wicked spawn.
Wilco achieves the same effect in a much different way on “Spiders(kidsmoke).” For most of the song’s 10 and a half minutes, the band chugs along, performing their best imitation of Neu!’s “Hallo Gallo,” until the spirit moves them to explode into the album’s chorus, a simple yet flawless rhythm guitar riff.
Even after all of this, there are nine more tracks, none of which sound anything like these other two. Do not be fooled by my concentration on the cacophonous undertones — many of these songs could have been B-sides on “Revolver” or “Rubber Soul.” Some of the melodies are so deft that it is hard to imagine anyone beside Lennon/McCartney owning publishing rights. Yoko probably will instigate yet another lawsuit once she hears the brilliant closing countermelody on “I’m a Wheel.” Oh Yoko (shh)!
Many die-hard fans may express dismay at the fact that they have heard several of these songs for years at the band’s concerts. Most of us fortunate Yalies witnessed at least one at the last year’s Spring Fling, doubtlessly the best ever. We seniors only can measure it against Ben Harper, who demonstrated to us once and for all that he does, in fact, throw like a girl (oh look, I’m actually reminiscing). But so what if the songs are familiar? Neil Young didn’t release his classic concert staple “Razor Love” until 2002, and it still sounded great. These songs are outstanding, and if it still bothers you, I can testify that many of them sound nothing like their previous live incarnations.
The next big question concerns the album’s subject matter. YHF was all about the difficulty of interpersonal communication, and Wilco augmented this motif with all manners of luminously inspired electronic blips and bleeps. “Ghost” refuses to hide behind computers, and its entirely organic sound reveals a new obstinate brand of self-honesty. Tweedy’s lyrics deal with self-doubt and the resulting malleability. The sometimes brash, sometimes lovely music suggests both a reluctance to compromise and profound self-knowledge.
In “Theologians,” Tweedy sings, “I’m a cherry ghost” with no hint of sadness or regret. It’s a defiant inversion of death as resurrection and proof of existence. As I plunge headlong into the perilous vacuum of the summer, I am only beginning to appreciate the apprehension of the dirty business of birth as this album slides towards a late delivery.