Photo by Danny Clinch
On Wilco’s new A Ghost Is Born, there’s so much Neil Young circa Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, you can hear the cowgirl in the sand, down by the river; shards of electric-guitar grindage litter about omnipresent piano. “Hummingbird,” with its viola and cheery harmonizing, is any number of psychedelic Beatles songs. Steely Dan and David Bowie bare their souls on “Theologians.” And on “I’m a Wheel,” Jeff Tweedy counts off “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9” against sleazy bass lines, with Strokes-like bravado. The fifth incarnation of musicians in as many albums to call themselves Wilco seem to have lost interest in the experimental art-rock of their preceding effort, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a texturally sublime album of a lifetime; A Ghost Is Born is unadulterated classic rock for the ages.
The references aren’t all old-school, though. The 10-minute “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” has a nerdy Casio beat that’s repetitive and droning in an American Analog Set sort of way. Like Dylan’s lyrics (old and new school), Tweedy’s entice when they confound: “Spiders are singing in the salty breeze/Spiders are filling out tax returns/Spinning out webs of deductions and melodies/On a private beach in Michigan.” There’s the radio-friendly (that’s if the radio played Wilco) “Handshake Drugs” and dulcimer-laced “Company in My Back,” before “Less Than You Think,” an unnecessary paean to interminable dead space.
Unless you’re a whiz kid and can capture and burn the digital stream off the Quicktime player at www.wilcoworld.net, the only way to listen to A Ghost Is Born — available on the band’s Web site since April Fool’s Day, though not in stores until June 22 — is on a computer. Offering new material in advance of official release is nothing new for Wilco. After the AOL-Time-Warner subsidiary Reprise dropped them because the band refused to edit their ultimately much-lauded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco made the Internet their nonstop transmitter, generating enough buzz over the course of nearly a year to attract bids from several labels, and in an ironic twist signed with Nonesuch, whose parent company is the aforementioned AOL-T-W behemoth. “We prefer that if people are going to get the record, they come to the source; there is nothing to lose by people hearing your music,” Wilco’s Webmaster, Ken Waagner, writes in an e-mail.
Shortly after A Ghost Is Born became available through
file-sharing in early March, Ronen Givony downloaded a copy of the album and posted the lyrics at www.bemydemon.org. He then e-mailed Tweedy to clear up any discrepancies, apologized for stealing the music, and promised to buy a CD when it becomes available. Givony then set up www.justafan.org with Jeff Dashley, Webmaster of the fan site www.viachicago.org, as a destination for downloaders of the album to make a donation in payment for their “thievery” to Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, Wilco’s charity of choice. As of April 30, the site had raised $8,728.
Surely there were desert rats who turned up at Coachella not knowing that Wilco had bailed two weeks prior on their double bill with the reunited Pixies. Turned out Boss Tweedy needed more time in a Windy City rehab facility, where he is/was (Wilco headquarters’ lips are sealed) combating an addiction to painkillers he’d been taking to alleviate migraines that have afflicted him since childhood.
The unsympathetic need look only as far as Sam Jones’ beautiful black-and-white documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart to understand the troubadour’s suffering: After a tedious confrontation with now ex–band member Jay Bennett, in which Bennett obsesses over pinpointing an accurate start to the mix of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” Tweedy grows frustrated, lights a cigarette, and moments later is in the bathroom, puking. Since then, multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach has departed, leaving only two original members, Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt — and the latter has recently shown an increased interest in the Autumn Defense, his moonlighting gig with newly anointed Wilco touring member Pat Sansone. (Guitarist Nels Cline also got the nod for an upcoming European tour and a few stateside shows, including three dates at Lollapalooza.)
Suddenly the parallels between Tweedy and his former Uncle Tupelo collaborator Jay Farrar — who has no doubt suffered his fair share of headaches after spawning a mediocre solo career from the disbanded yet memorable Son Volt — are more obvious, seemingly destined. By the way, Jeff, acupuncture works wonders for migraines.