Following up a career-making, universally acclaimed opus is enough to fray the edges of a human being’s sanity. We saw this in Meeting People Is Easy, the impossibly morbid documentary about Radiohead’s tour in support of OK Computer, and we heard it in Kid A, Radiohead’s even more insular and paranoid follow-up album. Wilco’s 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was that sort of creative supernova — experimental in an approachable way, coping with white male despair through the prism of classic guitar music, an expansive yet unified vision, totally fucking awesome — to the extent that it landed Wilco with a reputation as the “American Radiohead.” And like Radiohead, Wilco followed up their instant classic with a more difficult collection of songs that seemed to be the outpouring of a frontman’s unmoored mind. But A Ghost Is Born, which turned 10 yesterday, is not the same kind of album as Kid A. Although Jeff Tweedy was becoming increasingly concerned about the George W. Bush administration at the time, these are not explicitly political or globally minded songs. There are Big Ideas, but no “ice age coming” doomsday talk. Nor is there a palpable sense that Wilco is trying to subvert your expectations or that they felt creatively paralyzed by the task of following YHF. Sonically, the scope is vaster than ever. The band’s ever-evolving lineup had never comprised so many experimentally inclined musicians, and Chicago avant-garde mainstay Jim O’Rourke, the guy who gave YHF its genius collage-like mixing job, was on board as producer. But the content could not have been more specific to Tweedy and the struggles that haunted his placid suburban existence. A Ghost Is Born presents a more personal, distinctly Midwestern turmoil. It is proof that everyday life can drive you crazy too.
Chuck Klosterman’s Spin feature from July 2004 sheds light on the circumstances surrounding the album’s creation and release. Tweedy had always suffered from panic attacks and vomit-inducing migraines, but they grew ever more intense during the making of A Ghost Is Born. He started taking massive amounts of Vicodin to cope, then quit popping pills cold turkey, including the medicine he had been prescribed for his panic attacks. When he went back on his prescription medication, it didn’t help with his panic attacks anymore, and he ended up in the hospital a few months after the album wrapped up, followed by a “dual-diagnosis” rehab facility that linked substance abuse with mental illness. Tweedy would probably balk at the idea of letting those events dominate your understanding of A Ghost Is Born, and it’s definitely a more complex record than that. Still, the inscrutable and playfully skippy “Company In My Back” includes a lyric about puking, and the bulk of the 15-minute “Less Than You Think” is a feedback experiment designed to evoke one of Tweedy’s migraines — not to mention the vague references to buying illicit substances downtown on “Handshake Drugs” — so it would be wrong to ignore those factors entirely. The album is threaded with a beautiful fragility, starting with the domestic discord lullaby that kicks off album opener “At Least That’s What You Said.” Yet that song’s hushed piano prologue is jolted awake by a scraping roots-rock riff and full-band pounding that rapidly expands into sprawling waves of Crazy Horse guitar. A Ghost Is Born follows that pattern from then on, veering between peaceful beauty and abrasive noise of the rock ‘n’ roll and avant varieties. Knowing what we know about the album’s background, it’s hard not to hear its blend of serenity and abrasion as a musical depiction of Tweedy’s anxious inner workings.
If Tweedy’s weathered vocals communicated the frailty, his uncombed guitar work is responsible for much of the disruption. A Ghost Is Born is the first album Wilco made entirely without Jay Bennett, the traditionalist foil whose influence reached its pinnacle on the 1999’s rootsy pop daydream Summerteeth. Bennett left the band during the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot due to creative differences with Tweedy; meanwhile, O’Rourke’s increasing influence blurred the lines between Wilco and Loose Fur, Tweedy’s free-range side project with O’Rourke and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. One of the results was that the spazzed-out six-string meanderings that marked YHF’s “I’m The Man Who Loves You” roamed the whole of A Ghost Is Born like a feral cat. Similarly, all the experimental impulses that lingered on the fringes of the previous record were pushed further to the center this time around. The exploratory spirit manifested itself in a handful of ways: “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is a krautrock song with a classic rock breakdown. The glimmering arpeggios of “Muzzle Of Bees” build to a climax that weaves abrasive guitar skree into the prettiest passage of music Wilco ever recorded. For every dose of moody twilight balladry like “Wishful Thinking,” there is an on-edge outburst like “I’m A Wheel.” As a result, A Ghost Is Born was the most difficult Wilco ever got, the culmination of the band’s journey from the alt-country’s core to art-rock’s accessible fringe.
Even at their most obtuse, though, Wilco never stopped kicking out pure classic-rock cuts like Tweedy’s big Paul McCartney moment “Hummingbird” and the rollicking album closer “The Late Greats.” No matter how deeply they dabbled with figures like O’Rourke, at their core they remained a populist rock ‘n’ roll band, Tweedy’s easygoing melodies gliding on John Stirratt’s playfully sturdy bass lines. That’s for the best because Tweedy is impossibly good at injecting fresh gravitas into well-worn forms, as evidenced by A Ghost Is Born’s two finest songs. “Hell Is Chrome” is Randy Newman piano-pop with a deadened soul, the sound of Tweedy letting staid, orderly modern existence close in on him, his contentment becoming claustrophobia. He blames his despair on the influence of a chrome-colored devil, whereas “Theologians” turns a skeptical glance toward a different spiritual plane. Riding a steady, soulful groove, Tweedy quotes passages from Jesus Christ’s Farewell Discourse while brusquely asserting that “theologians don’t know nothin’ about my soul” and identifying himself as “a cherry ghost.” Even if his exact meaning is elusive, the chorus more than gets the point across.
Many of the fans that discovered Wilco during their more traditionalist early years decried A Ghost Is Born as a pretentious point of no return, and in the decade since then the band seemed to heed those concerns. After this midlife crisis of a record, Wilco settled into an easygoing middle age. The lineup they assembled to tour behind A Ghost Is Born finally stuck, putting an end to years of turnover but also seemingly cementing the parameters of the band’s sound once and for all and permanently infusing all their material with Nels Cline’s jazzy lead guitar acrobatics. Even as they continued to write all kinds of different songs and release good-to-great LPs, they became a less restless, more comfortable band. We can probably chalk that up at least in part to Tweedy getting a handle on the neuroses that drove his most fruitful creative period, and if so, I’m happy for him. Still, as someone who fell deeply in love with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the summer after high school, I’m incredibly grateful Wilco had one more album like this in them.
In the weeks leading up to A Ghost Is Born’s release, I was wrapping up a quarter studying abroad in Spain, and conveniently Wilco played Primavera Sound in Barcelona a couple weeks before the album dropped. As with YHF, they streamed A Ghost Is Born on their website way ahead of the physical release, and I’d managed a couple listens in an internet cafe, but hearing this shimmering, skronking music in person, I was astounded. It was like watching A Ghost Is Born in IMAX; it made the album feel every bit as vital as the series of increasingly stunning releases that preceded it. In the ensuing years, the album has lost some of its luster. The songwriting isn’t quite as sharp. The tracklist doesn’t flow as intuitively. The bleariness is harder to bear, and the flashes of sunlight that burst through the fog shine less brightly. It feels more and more like a lesser sequel to an essentially perfect record — the first Wilco album that failed to top what came before, the comedown from the breathless evolution that began with Being There, the last gasp of Wilco’s prime. Yet it’s still very much a part of that prime, an imperfect classic laden with gorgeous arrangements, evocative lyrics, and melodies that ease their way into your consciousness for good.