Understated Classics #27: A Ghost Is Born by Wilco

I have already given some of the personal background to why I love this album and now it’s time to give a bit of love to the music itself so I’ll stick to giving a track by track account of “A Ghost Is Born”.

If you are familiar with Wilco’s first few albums, you’ll know that A Ghost Is Born is on the line of best fit through Being There, Summerteeth, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It continues its predecessor’s experimentation, but also gets reined in a little. Great songs - some of my favourite Wilco songs - were left off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (“Venus Stopped The Train”, “A Magazine Called Sunset”) so the follow-up could easily have been more of the same and everyone would have gone home happy.

It is to Wilco’s credit then that they set out push the envelope again. It is not quite the shock to the system that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was, but nor is it the hangover that early reviews first implied. If Yankee… demonstrated that a modern Wilco was possible, then for the most part A Ghost Is Born takes the baton and runs with it.

Your purple-black eye

The opener “At Least That’s What You Said” pulls no punches, there’s no slurred wordplay as with “I’m Trying To Break Your Heart” — here the damage has already been done, the heart already is broken, the narrator nurses a black eye, and both the people in the song need some time alone.

Musically it’s beautifully reserved, a minimal backing holding back until two minutes in when a squall of guitars come through1 and lay the real emotional trauma at the heart of the song bare before your ears. It is one of those beautiful songs (like “Dance Yourself Clean” by LCD Soundsystem) that tricks you into turning it up because it starts so quietly, and then BAM BAM BAM the guitar solo gets you.

“Hell is Chrome” — the song that indirectly gave this blog its name, as you are no doubt tired of hearing by now — is a more sedate affair. It tells of the devil coming to the song’s narrator and not being red, but chrome, and offering the world’s clean surfaces as a special kind of hell. Again the guitar solos scrape across the song midway through to take the place of a chorus but it doesn’t happen again throughout the record so we’ll forgive them.

It’s good to be alone

I was genuinely shocked the first time I ever heard “Spiders (kidsmoke)”, it is such a departure compared to their previous work. As for when they played it live, that totally blew me away. It’s a ten minute piece of motorik riffing that would sound more in place on a Neu! or a CAN record. It was very strange to hear it played within twenty minutes of “California Stars”. I think the best thing about it is that they’ve never revisited that sound (perhaps “Art of Almost” on “The Whole Love” comes close) so it always sounds new and strange, and the weird lyrics about “all these telescopic poems”, “spiders… filling out tax returns… on a private beach in Michigan” and “I just do what I am told” just make it all the better.

By comparison the gentle sweep of “Muzzle of bees” zips by in a blur, something like a gentler and less consequential “Jesus, etc”, so that I often hardly notice it (but I always enjoy it when I do). “Hummingbird” shows of Jeff Tweedy’s affection for White Album era McCartney songs, it’s pretty much “Martha My Dear” recast as Americana with some proper lyrics that McCartney couldn’t be bothered to put into the original2.

I was chewing gum as something to do

“Handshake Drugs” completes the section of “straight” songs that make up the middle of A Ghost Is Born. Unlike the very earnest songs of Yankee… (“I’m the Man Who Loves You”, “Kamera”), these are very downcast and understated, none more so than “Handshake Drugs” which puts a blank smile on the face of a song about prescription drug abuse.

The album’s beautiful ambient core is “Wishful Thinking”, a straight-up ode to the beauty of knowledge that tinkles the ivories and gently coos. There’s some lovely lines in there, I particularly like “The turntable sizzles / Casting the spells” and I adore how it mixes up sadness, thirst for knowledge, and romance all in to one beautiful song. Looking closer at the lyrics I understand now why “Panthers” was not included on the album and later issued as a bonus track - it overlaps lyrically with “Wishful Thinking”.

“Company In My Back” is a great little song, one of many Wilco songs that take a quirky lyrical idea and glues it to a quirky riff. It’s going around my head as I think of it now and of course the lyric “I will always die so you can remember me” fits in very well with the album’s title.

I’ll lay it down, a ghost is born

“I’m A Wheel” is a pallette-cleansing bit of punky noise, a song that dislodged the similar sounding “Kicking Television” from the track list. Both tracks are pretty inconsequential and I wonder if “Kicking Television” didn’t come along too late to be on the album (it was played for the first time at the Portsmouth gig) because I think it’s the better song.

Then along comes “Theologians” with all its anti-religious bluster “Theologians… don’t know nothing about my soul” and the repeated chorus of “a ghost is born”. The end refrain of “I’m a cherry ghost” lends a surreal aspect to the song and yet somehow makes complete sense.

Fill up your mind with all it can know

The next track “Less Than You Think” lasts for fifteen minutes. It begins with the line “Your mind’s a machine, deadly and dull…” and continues to relate a metaphor about migraines, before it collapses into a drone just after three minutes in. Conceptually that is very interesting but it makes for a rather dull listen once you’ve got the idea sorted in your head. I ripped about four minutes from the CD and that was enough for me.

The album ends with “The Late Greats”, a great song that was apparently added to the track listing at the last minute. It has a wonderful throwaway sound to it and it’s very straightforward, yet somehow it would not sit as perfectly as it does on any other Wilco album. It’s a beautiful chiming song about the ephemeral nature of pop music: “The best songs never get sung / the best laugh never leaves your lungs / it’s so good you will never know / they never even played a show” (a bit like all my “bands”).

I love this album: its sentiments, its confusion and most of all some cracking guitar solos. As I said when I wrote about that hat, I first encountered this album while in a foggy state in my life and its feints and dead ends, its heart and head, all served to draw me in. The ghost in the machine, the soul in the body. The long-lasting light.

Hero image is a Wilco Easter Egg based on the cover of “A Ghost is Born”, creative commons license.

  1. Yes, another squall. Just like number 27. And I note the fact that I’m following up a review of “Come On Die Young” with one of “A Ghost Is Born”. I don’t plan it like this, honest. 

  2. No wonder Lennon and McCartney fell out: John takes a load of drugs and explores the life of the mind, Paul stays at home to learn musique concrete and write songs about a shaggy Old English Sheepdog. 

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