Happy 15th Anniversary to Wilco’s fifth studio album A Ghost Is Born, originally released June 22, 2004.
Just three months ago, I revisited Wilco’s third album Summerteeth (1999) for its 20th anniversary. And now I’m back to honor their fifth LP A Ghost Is Born, released 15 years ago this week. The craziest thing about these two records is they were recorded only five years apart but their sounds remain a world apart.
Between them is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001), an LP that produced an experimentation with pop music no one expected from the band. Wilco gained a level of fame and acclaim for Foxtrot that gave them the confidence to keep pushing. We were their net when they jumped and that leap landed us A Ghost Is Born.
A Ghost Is Born sits neatly in the middle of Wilco’s ten studio albums. As the band’s center, the record is their turning point and their most exploratory.
It starts out with a whisper (“When I sat down on the bed next to you / you started to cry / I said, ‘maybe if I leave / you want me to come back home?’/ maybe all you need is / leave me alone / at least that’s what you said.” Tweedy is edging close to you on the bed telling you pieces of a story that’s even closer to him. The details get gruesome (“I thought it was cute / for you to kiss / my purple black eye / even though I caught it from you / I still think we’re serious /at least that’s what you said”) and fifteen years later still make me wonder and grip whatever I’m holding, even if its myself, a little tighter.
The first two minutes of “At Least That’s What You Said” is raw emotion. It’s one hell of an album opener. Until that two minute mark where everything is ripped to shreds and Tweedy comes in on electric guitar with one of the best riffs of his career. It’s on Ghost where Tweedy is prominently on the guitar for the entire record, the only time that’s happened on Wilco’s LPs. He used the guitar to translate something impossible to hold: pain.
There are many side stories of the Wilco arc including—but not limited to—record labels and disgruntled band members. The most important concerning A Ghost Is Born is headaches. Tweedy has been plagued by chronic migraines his whole life, vomiting and all. The month before Ghost’s release he checked into a clinic for migraines, depression, and anxiety attacks. It put off a tour, where the band was playing a lot of the record before it came out. Soon after, he became addicted to the painkillers prescribed to him. Tweedy then checked into rehab, one that would treat addiction and depression after realizing he couldn’t fight one battle without facing the other.
He wanted to push his headaches and panic attacks out through six strings. A Ghost Is Born is a sweeping landscape of Jeff Tweedy’s guitar and therefore, of his head. In this context “At Least That’s What You Said” is crisp and anything but concise. When the piano and drums come in and pound together, it’s a pulse. A Ghost Is Born is often building up to break us back down. The lyrics are a whimper and the melody a rage. For someone with so much pain and confusion, it’s amazing he’s able to find beauty in it. To take it one step further and share that beauty is nearly fantastical.
Tweedy is an unstoppable musician on this record. I find myself reminding fellow Wilco fans of Tweedy’s guitar work, of his genius with the instrument, and the power and dexterity he can deliver. Resident jazz rock guitarist Nels Cline joined the band in 2004 but doesn’t appear until 2007’s Sky Blue Sky. A Ghost Is Born is all Tweedy.
There are new members who joined up for Ghost. Keyboard player Mikael Jorgensen, formerly Wilco’s sound engineer, is here and shares some songwriting credits with Tweedy. Jorgensen formally introduces himself on track two, “Hell Is Chrome,” with a bright opening riff on the piano. Keyboards have always been an important part of Wilco, but on Ghost they expand alongside Tweedy’s guitar forming cacophonous riffs. Jorgensen also plays rocksichord, organ, synthesizer, and a Farfisa (an electric organ) on the LP, bringing new textures to play with.
A Ghost Is Born is about many things happening at once. The keyboards and guitar talk to each other in phrases, patterns, and choruses, exchanging notes on pain, pleasure, and tension. It’s on “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” where they really start gabbing.
“Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is over ten minutes long. Its ambition is the first great thing about it. The song is a trance with trickles of avant-garde guitar under a metronome. The lyrics, meanwhile, wander in and out of meaninglessness and jumbles of anthropomorphic spiders who sing, fill out tax returns, and “spinning out webs of deductions and melodies.” Tweedy wonders about the spiders and wanders off, back into the guitar. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is a liberation for the band, where they try out new versions of themselves: they jam.
And then like a good mixtape of their own making, reminding us who they are, they start pumping out the hits. The core of Ghost is two different trios of songs. First is “Muzzle of Bees,” “Hummingbird” (rounding out a trio of animal songs), and “Handshake Drugs.” These are now straightforward Wilco favorites full of acoustic guitar, singalongs, and picturesque scenes of Tweedy’s best storytelling.
I’ve spent years listening to Wilco intently. But only after reading Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back), I realized how many of his songs are about addiction and recovery. Tweedy has some of the best lines on Ghost about using drugs and being familiar with yourself no matter what side of it you’re on: “I looked like someone I used to know / I felt alright / if I ever was myself / I wasn’t that night.”
The next trio of songs expand from quiet contemplation on “Wishful Thinking” to the slightly louder “Company On My Back.” And then it’s the electric “I’m A Wheel” where Wilco reminds us they’re a fully formed rock band. Tweedy moans, wails, and screeches on “I’m A Wheel,” getting even more pressure out of his head. It’s so satisfying.
Underneath all of these poly rhythms is Glenn Kotche, the other new member to the lineup. He plays a hammered dulcimer on “Company On My Back” creating a spinning echo.
“Theologians,” is a standout Wilco piano track, co-written by Tweedy and Jorgensen, giving us the title. It climbs a much smaller peak compared to what has yet to come: the fifteen minute “Less Than You Think.” It was described at the time by critics as “self-indulgent” and “wildly uneven.” But after 15 years, it’s still a radical Wilco. Maybe some of us weren’t ready for it back then. On A Ghost Is Born is where they morphed into a new version of themselves. It’s still fresh—and out there—today.
“Less Than You Think” opens with somber piano and soft finger picked guitar underneath that’s barely there: “your mind’s a machine / it’s deadly and dull / it’s never been still and its will / has never been free.”
I love the true acceptance in those lines: we’re all the same machine, where life is dull more often than not. Tweedy’s darkness comes into full focus: will is never free. The dulcimer escalates and Tweedy whispers again. The song is a solomon and his words blur. After three minutes, the remaining twelve are an electric fuzz. Tweedy requested each band member find a synthesizer pitch that mimicked an electronic sound, then he blended them together to create a busy field of noise. It’s a track you listen to all the way through on purpose. It’s the beginning of a storm where the clouds start to roll a dark blue, almost purple.
They leave us with a two-and-a-half minute pop track, “The Late Greats,” about unsung heroes: “the best bands will never get signed” and “so good you won’t ever know / they never even played a show.” A perfect homage to crate digging, B-sides, and the anti-.
For years Wilco have been described as “dad rock,” but their legacy and output is much greater than jokes about flannel, horn rimmed glasses, beards, and mid-tempo rock. Their live shows last like jams, they take requests, and at their upcoming music and art festival in Massachusetts, fans can enter a contest to sing on stage with the band, Wilco performing as a karaoke band for some lucky someone. The Whole Love in 2011 dipped back into the long, trancing drones of what was born on Foxtrot. And the companion records Star Wars and Schmilco (in 2015 and 2016 respectively) are electric, folky, and fun. Their catalog is a wide collection of weird, fun humanity asking what else can be done with pop music.
Even as they’re still asking, what they did to it on A Ghost Is Born stands alone as a Wilco record, amongst their peers, and their foils. Awarded the GRAMMY for Best Alternative Music Album, Ghost is a tremendous outpouring of pain and a reminder that you are never alone. You always have Wilco.