Detroit rapper Black Milk burst on to the scene, to the delight of many, including me, in the 2000’s with some organic, soul-inspired beats and some fiery, street diction. 2008’s Tronic was the definite classic, full of insight into the rap game but mainly just egotistical swagger, all over those punchy, tight snares, kicks and synths. Then, all hell broke loose. Two of his friends died. His aunt died. He crashed his car. He titled his next album “Album of the Year,” which he explains in the intro: “About a year passed from the release of the album until the time I turned in the new album… and every life experience I had in that year’s time, I couldn’t help but channel those moments through the music.”
That’s kind of like what A Ghost is Born is to me — not that Jeff Tweedy or anyone else went through anything close to what Milk did, but like Album of the Year it’s a followup to a classic album that itself is defiantly real, and would rather make you uncomfortable with its level of personal diatribe than stand as anything mainstream or unsubstantial.
Where Black Milk actually found the energy in himself to outdo himself, however, Wilco succeed in stripping down the theatrics and getting more authentic. Part of this has to do with the departure of Jay Bennett, who’d been responsible for the feedback sound effects on YHF but was released from the band for personality reasons, or, in hindsight, what seem like artistic reasons.
And I mean you can’t judge these things like objects in the spatial realm of the universe — these classic album followups. Sure, many have succeeded: The Strokes – Room on Fire; Queens of the Stone Age – Lullabies to Paralyze; Franz Ferdinand – You Could Have it So Much Better; Spoon – Gimme Fiction. All these albums are pretty solid efforts that follow classics by the same band and generally mimic the style of those prior classic albums.
But come one, they ALL kind of feel like let downs just a bit, DON’T they?
A Ghost is Born grabs you by the collar and pulls you through a roller coaster of real life experiences. There’s absolutely nothing regular about this record. It’s completely in a world of its own. It’s in its own galaxy.
I think I grappled with myself for a long time on “At Least That’s What You Said” and “He** is Chrome” as 1-2 tracks, not really disliking them but certainly not putting them on at parties, either. And I think I finally get it too: they’re just Jeff Tweedy’s way of being real. Life in the wake of his last album’s success has been uncomfortable for him, the things he thought he could rely on have shown to be stilts on quicksand, and the best way he can portray this is in a very austere, barren musical landscape, depicting a sort of emotional blight that, though hard to express, is his own nonetheless.
But just before Ween bequeathed their one electro album La Cucaracha, Wilco gave us “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” a one-off so heady and grounded that it seems like it could have ushered in a new stylistic direction for the band, were it not for their overflow of ideas fermenting within their current style. I’ll admit it, the first time I heard the intro to this song I was like, tripped out, dude. And really I’m still not THRILLED with its placement of third on the album, seeing as it’s close to 11 minutes long and such a textural left turn from the first two songs — I mean calling it awkward would be like calling the weather in Antarctica a tad bit drafty. But listen to it I do, every time, and over time, the more worn out and jaded you get the more you learn to appreciate things like the perfection of the guitar riff from Nels Cline to close out each eight-bar phrase within those instrumental choruses of guitar stabs (the last of which does feature some spooky lyrics like “There’s no blood on my hands / I just do as I am told”. Perhaps most impressively, this is the rare Wilco track that isn’t brought to superior vibrancy on Kicking Television: Live in Chicago, probably because of the genre in which it’s grounded, of course.
Now comes an interesting pair of songs everybody seems to forget about: “Muzzle of Bees” and “Hummingbird.” Interestingly, too, this marks three consecutive songs on the album which reference animals. So A Ghost is Born is Wilco’s nature-lover’s album, I suppose, but the acoustic guitar part in “Muzzle of Bees” seems like a geometrically aligned microcosm of the universe — it’s like the perfect, musical way to look at another man, all wrapped up in a sound recording. I attach no importance to the lyrics of this song, personally, because musically it’s da** near flawless, not least for its explosive electric solo unfurling its second half (which is indeed improved upon on Kicking Television, for the record), to say nothing of “Hummingbird,” a heartbreakingly gorgeous tale of loneliness, defeat and nature, a folk song coming to a head around the lines “And the gray fountain spray / Of the great Milky Way / Would never let him / Die alone”. The song’s chorus is disarmingly gorgeous and generally, this song caps of side a in robust, memorable style. Primarily, then, what hits me in older age pertaining to “Handshake Drugs” is its complete lack of attempt to be anything it’s not: it’s like a being that lives an entire existence with no extraneous ambition. It’s the same at its end as it is at its start, a steady, plaintive rocker about the other “trying to score”… and by the way live version better, bing.
Typically the favorite two cuts on the entire LP are “Wishful Thinking” and “Company in My Back” and I’m really not very askance to that opinion, myself. Especially, “Company in My Back” is a completely sublime piece of music, with, um, a RIFF (sh** I have no idea if that’s a piano or guitar that opens this song and in general this band’s instrumentation is downright intimidating), governing the initial verse segment with a sort of quiet funk, bubbling to a magnetic chorus of first just guitar, secondly to feature these gorgeous quarter-note piano stabs that cement this song’s instrumentation as completely elite. The playful flairs of “I’m a Wheel” hit me the more I listen to this album as does the hard-won tranquility and professionalism of “Theologians,” on which, belied by the sort of churlish, petulant claim of righteous individuality on the part of the lyricist, the band rocks away on a groove that’s disciplined, piano-based and replete with an almost horrifyingly raspy vocal sound. This is music that’s been around the block.
And then yeah, there’s a bunch of crap to end the album. “Hug the dark,” said Bukowski. “Remain disturbed. Slide.” The penultimate track is undeniably a purgation of sorts, like that looming thought that no matter how much you enjoy the Friday night that is the bulk of A Ghost is Born, this weekend’s going to end and go plummeting into the work week again, signified by this 12 minutes of pointedly annoying noise. I think Tweedy one time made the statement that “Less than You Think” were meant to sonically mimic what having a migraine is like. One thing’s for sure: with songs like this in their oeuvres, this band’s extant disdain for its audience is pronounced and undeniable, but I was just taking what I could get, anyway.