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T he soft piano that opens “At Least That’s What You Said” occupies one end of the Wilco spectrum, while the spastic, wailing fuzz guitar that closes the track is the sentinal that guards the far gate.

The fitting combination makes the lead track from A Ghost Is Born as much a statement song as Wilco has ever recorded. It’s demanding: Listen close and we’ll blow your mind.
The curious – and fascinating and difficult and rewarding – part is that those divergent sounds aren’t split into anything resembling an obvious dichotomoy. They’re not good/evil, not light/dark, not peace/chaos.

They’re the desert and the rain, the late night caffeine buzz. They’re Wilco. While no album is more than passingly similar to any other, each song in the Wilco canon is unmistakably Wilco.

A Ghost is Born succeeds as much as the rest, and while two ill-advised detours break up the continuity, it is a fine album that will surely rank among the year’s best. That Wilco has gone from ignored to praised to overly dissected by critics means nothing more than the band has continued to make good music long enough to get noticed on a larger scale. While stories of record-label battles, band infighting and drug addiction are alternately fascinating and annoying, they are just stories. Wilco is music.

For the obligatory comparison of A Ghost is Born to Wilco’s previous works, especially the 2002 masterpiece and flag-planting Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I’ll simply present the first words from each, chronologically backwards-wise.

“When I sat down on the bed next to you / You started to cry”
“I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue”
“The way things go / You get so low / Struggle to find your skin”
“When you’re back in your old neighborhood / The cigarettes taste so good”
“You always wanted more time / To do what you / Always wanted to do”

Lots of I’s and lots of you’s. Comforting and familiar at times, but there’s an underlying mobility in each. Wanting and struggling and old home and crying and absurdity. There’s nothing easy in there.

“At Least That’s What You Said” certainly fits. It’s a somber, simple, plaintive love poem before the music pulls a backwards “Layla,” diving into guitar noise from the shore of a piano ballad. It sure as hell makes you stop.

“Hell is Chrome” can barely stand up afterwards, but it’s a nice breather. This isn’t album filler, this is a brilliant way to structure a truly great listening experience from collaborative tracks.

Which makes the existence of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” so goddamned unfortunate. It’s obnoxious at best. My first downloaded copy did not come with the crazy Euro-stomp that goes for waaaay tooooo looooong, so the song sure was a shocker. It’s not my place to question Jeff Tweedy’s intentions and frankly I don’t give a damn if the song (and companion nonsense “Less Than You Think”) is a sonic presentation of his migraines, as has been suggested. I’ve had migraines and they’re hell. There’s no reason to turn it to song. My best hope for the track is simply that it grows on me, just enough to not cringe at it.

Ahh. “Spiders” is over, or more likely has been skipped.

After a bit of a warm-up or return to form with “A Muzzle of Bees,” A Ghost is Born commences with a five-song stretch of pure ass-kicking brilliance.

“Hummingbird” presents the strange man whose “Goal in life was to be an echo.” Here Tweedy is at his thought-provoking best. Is it his goal in life to be an echo? Is it merely a repetition of what came before? Or does he think more of an echo – that haunting, ill-formed sound that curls up in alleyways and canyon walls, yet seeming to spring forth from nowhere – and give it some netherworld quality? The rest of the song follows with some of his most enjoyable imagery since turning assassin into a verb, all wrapped up in tricky half-rhymes that work beautifully. “A fixed bayonet through the great Southwest to forget her” and “But in the deep chrome canyons of the loudest Manhattans / No one could hear him” are among the best.

During Wilco’s performance of the song last week on David Letterman, Tweedy performed the song guitar-less, effecting a pseudo-lounge bounce, clearly enjoying himself. That certainly bodes well once the band rescheduled their trip out to the Great Southwest, and I can finally see a live show again.

“Handshake Drugs” is a comfortably down-and-out take on any town in America. His is a Downtown filled with characters – those weirdos we barely if ever knew but remember with a chuckle forever.

The music here is bouncy, as in the last one, but takes another wistful turn on “Wishful Thinking,” at the same time celebrating the quest for wisdom and acknowledging a certain futility:

“Fill up your mind with all it can know
Don’t forget that your body will let it all go
Fill up your mind with all it can know
What would we be without wishful thinking”

The song’s tone – musically and lyrically – is infused with the sense of an overly reflective quest, the type generically and demeaningly termed “mid-life crisis.” It’s an unquiet mind that questions life’s every turn, but in Tweedy’s hands, a constant search and review of oneself seems worth the while.

The album turns it up a notch with “Company in My Back,” the most straight ahead rocker of the set. The bouncy song may well serve as the band’s unofficial definition: while not their best, it seems to be the only song that would fit right in on any album the band has recorded.

Originally published at The Time & Space Lounge on June 24, 2004.

(Note: Long before I started freelance music writing, I would occasionally dabble in the same type of stuff. I’ll periodically dig some of the good stuff out of the past and re-post them here.)

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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