Wilco's 'Ghost': Living in an Ethereal World
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page N01
Alittle rock-and-roll math:
Let X equal the grand total of flattering media attention -- deferential books and films, reverent articles in newspapers and magazines. Let Y equal total album sales. What you now have is a ratio of critical praise to commercial impact, a figure that gauges the admiration of tastemakers relative to the buying appetite of the masses.
Now consider Wilco. Is there a band anywhere on the planet with a higher attention-to-sales ratio? Is there any group, in other words, that's raved about more and sells any less? Reviews come fast and effusive, a smart band biography ("Learning How to Die," by Greg Kot) has just arrived, and a 2002 documentary about the quintet's record-label struggles ("I Am Trying to Break Your Heart") somehow turned up in art-film houses across the country. A new album, "A Ghost Is Born," which landed in stores on Tuesday, is one of the release events of the year. All of this for an act that in its 10 years has never scored gold or platinum with an album, never come close to a radio hit.
Deepening the mystery, there isn't a heartthrob in the group. Come to think of it, there isn't really a group. Wilco is essentially lead singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy and a rotating cast of talented musicians, all of them fired after a tour or two, before anything that might be considered a lineup has a chance to cohere. Hitless, hunk-free and forever switching personnel, Wilco hardly seems a likely candidate for the exaltation it's been granted in recent years.
How does Wilco do it? It's safe to say it has the right fans, which is to say, the ones who write reviews and assign stories and make movies. Hoobastank might one day sell enough albums to buy France, but it will never earn a fraction of the acclaim, in part because fans of post-grunge bands are teenagers and don't typically write for Rolling Stone.
Wilco is also ripe for mythologizing because it has a good back story. It's lore now: Tweedy and high school friend Jay Farrar start a band called Uncle Tupelo in the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Ill. The group pumps life into the then-neglected art of alternative-country rock, an American roots music born in the late '60s that added twang to bands like the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Rolling Stones.
Uncle Tupelo records a handful of terrific and largely overlooked albums and, in 1994, breaks up because Farrar can't stand Tweedy and, come to think of it, Tweedy isn't all that crazy about Farrar. Son Volt is born (the band started by Farrar), and Tweedy starts Wilco. In the circles populated by alt-country lovers, the split takes on a kind of biblical gravity (And lo did the house of Uncle Tupelo divide unto itself . . .), and the two bands spend the following years releasing much-admired albums and quietly competing with each other.
Tweedy's canonization doesn't actually happen until 2001, when he records "Yankee Foxtrot Hotel," an ambitious, often gorgeous album that is famously rejected as too obscure by Warner/Reprise. Tweedy buys back the album for $50,000, sells it to the far smaller Nonesuch Records and becomes a folk hero, especially to major-label haters, when critics decide that "YFH" is pretty much a masterpiece. (Never mind that Nonesuch is actually another subsidiary of Warner. )
Of course, Tweedy isn't the first musician to smite, or appear to smite, the Man. What sets him apart isn't his disregard for the expectations of his label as much as his disregard for the expectations of his fans. To listen to Wilco's albums in the order of their release is to hear a man's growing disenchantment with the architecture of rock. "A.M.," released in 1995, has all the elements of songcraft as we understand it -- chorus follows verse, hooks arrive on cue, lyrics provide a sense of place and time. Since then, Tweedy has slowly inched from these building blocks, and with "A Ghost Is Born" he knocks them all down.
The album, Wilco's fifth, is an experiment that only the initiated will enjoy. In fact, if the cult of Wilco has mystified you so far, "Ghost" is sure to deepen the mystery. What can you say about a song like "Less Than You Think," which ends with 12 wordless minutes of what sounds like intergalactic radio hum. "Well, nobody has tried that before" is one thing you could say. "I'm never sitting through that again" is another.
You might admire the nerve it took Tweedy to play the numbingly long electric guitar solo on the album opener, "At Least That's What You Said," reaching for the wearying effect that Neil Young achieved in live jams with his band Crazy Horse. Or you might wonder what kind of lunatic would plop such an inhospitable welcome mat at the front of an album, one that all but dares listeners to go knock on someone else's door.
"Ghost" is a rethinking of rock's mannerisms that mostly reminds you why these mannerisms became so popular in the first place. With production by Jim O'Rourke, who hails from the niche world of electro-acoustic rock, the album has the feel of a disoriented confession; it seems to take place in a landscape of the mind where almost nothing is familiar. There is a drug deal happening on "Handshake Drugs," the Devil swings by for a how-do-you-do on "Hell Is Chrome," but otherwise, the lyrics leave you anxiously stranded, without reference points, in a psychedelic heap.
You don't need to know that Tweedy went into rehab to cure an addiction to painkillers after recording this album to hear in it a plea for an intervention. "There's no blood on my hands / I just do as I'm told," he mutters on "Spiders (Kidsmoke)." Music is a source of pain on "Wishful Thinking," in which Tweedy declares that "hell in a nutshell is any song worth singing if it doesn't help." Even when the melodies lighten things up, Tweedy plays the heavy. "Theologians" sounds like an upbeat Randy Newman track, but then you realize it really is about theologians.
Either Tweedy is the most generous songwriter of his generation or the stingiest. There's an emotional rawness to "Ghost" that implies he is giving away everything. But he's miserly with all that makes music accessible -- anything that you could sing along to, for instance -- even though he can create unforgettable beauty whenever, it seems, he's in the mood. The last minute of "Hummingbird," which soars on the back of a viola and hammered dulcimer, could be a missing fragment from "Abbey Road." Parts of "Company in My Back" are iridescent. So the album is like an aimless, droning lecture by a guy who every 20 minutes does a magic trick that blows your mind. You listen if only because at any moment he might start to levitate.
There's exactly one rock-and-roll song on this album, and it's the final track, "The Late Greats." It reminds you of the wonders Tweedy can conjure when he bows even slightly to convention, but it also underscores what a slog so much of "Ghost" has been. Somewhere along the line, maybe when audiences at live shows took to a churchly hush, Wilco became part band and part religion. And as with any religion, you either believe or you find the whole thing a little ridiculous.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Wilco consists of lead singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy and a rotating cast of musicians.
In some editions of the Post, a review in the June 27 Arts section gave an incorrect name for the 2002 album by the band Wilco. The album was called "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."