By Mark Guarino
The mark of a great band is that they keep everyone guessing, a practice that continues to keep Wilco on the map. Follow the 1995 debut up through “A Ghost is Born” (Nonesuch), the band’s fifth album, and you’ll encounter jagged left turns, flying leaps forward and rest stops for regrouping. The nine-year process irritated fans and made others sign on, but there is no doubt this band has never rested on its laurels. Not once.
In stores Tuesday, “Ghost” is the Wilco album yielding higher than usual expectations. It is the first without Jay Bennett, the band’s multi-instrumentalist who first introduced feedback and a pop shine to the roots music lonesomeness of frontman Jeff Tweedy. It also follows the barrage of media coverage surrounding its last album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (Nonesuch), and the personnel and label changes that led to its birth.
Two years later, the storyline of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” the Sam Jones documentary, is circumspect. True, when Wilco was dropped from Reprise, the Time Warner subsidiary, for not fulfilling commercial expectations, it was a red lettered headline about priorities regarding art and commerce in the music industry.
But these days, the story’s end chapter can only summon a shrug. One Time Warner subsidiary dropped them, another Time Warner subsidiary, Nonesuch, signed them. “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” became the band’s biggest seller and paved the way for a wider audience and renewed the band’s mythic stature. If the hoopla from two years back was designed to pit David versus Goliath, the resulting battle scenes were, in retrospect, pretty limp.
The story of Wilco’s fight for artistic integrity might have ended very differently if the album under siege was not “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” — a very accessible album, in the light of things — but “Ghost.” Set against the two albums that preceded it, “Foxtrot” and “Summerteeth,” “Ghost” is muted, more nuanced and darker.
As the previous two albums braced pleasurable popcraft against a stormy undercurrent, “Ghost” follows a more uniform line from start to finish. It uses enigmatic wordplay, sudden bursts of full band cacophony and electronic discord, from tiny shards to full symphonies, to set moods that don’t vary much. If you like your paranoia, paralyzing emotions and struggle for salvation served in one sitting, it’s here.
In Bennett’s absence, Tweedy assigns himself the role of lead guitarist. His playing twists “Ghost” into a knot, then lets it unravel. On album opener “At Least That’s What You Said,” he battles against Glenn Kotche’s thrashing drum kit, sounding like a storm of mosquitoes, but one song later, on “Hell is Chrome,” Tweedy holds long sustained notes that beautifully shimmer before tumbling away. On “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” a 10-minute jam, he splatters notes against a wall of very sanitized robot rock, courtesy of co-producer Jim O’Rourke. More than anything, the scars in Tweedy’s playing set this Wilco album apart from the others.
The production defers to Tweedy’s monotone vocals and, upon first listen, nothing announces itself immediately. The quiet storm reveals to be the build up to the dense jams the band engages in and also the ocean of distortion that washes through the end. Both are unexpected but their novelty wears thin upon repeated listens. Tacked onto the end of “Less Than You Think,” the 12-minute metal machine music succeeds as a drone, but it never feels integrated with the drive of what came before.
Tweedy doesn’t need to rely on such hefty statements because the entirety of “Ghosts” is one already. You need not know the back story of his lifelong anxiety attacks, migraines and recent addiction to prescription painkillers to feel the haze that permeates these songs. “You’re irresistible/when you get mad/isn’t it sad/I’m immune?” he whispers at the beginning.
“Hell is Chrome,” the album highlight, imagines Lucifer beckoning. “When the devil came/he was not red/he was chrome and he said/come with me,” Tweedy sings. It’s the sweetest song on “Ghost” and if the lyrics were removed, it might be a lullaby. But as it stands, it is a song showing the seductive cradle of addiction, standing alongside “Comfortably Numb” and “The Needle and the Damage Done.”
Like the albums those songs came from, “Ghosts” is a definite journey, easy for some, difficult for others, but definitely requiring a commitment to make it to the end. But as with the persisting personnel changes (hello Mikhael Jorgensen, goodbye Leroy Bach), Wilco is making a legacy about movement. Even if moving forward sometimes sounds like standing still, transfixed and lost.