25 March 2007

Ghosts Revisited

It must be difficult for artists to wind up as “critical darlings,” adored by the media and a medium-sized cadre of the public – big enough to create buzz, small enough that the total market impact is limited. It must be even worse to be a “critical darling” in the world of contemporary music, which is unique among the arts in its combination of broad audiences, wide-ranging media interest, and commercial pressures.

And so one cannot but have some sympathy for Wilco, the alt-rock / alt-country band that – in an effort to separate the wheat from the chaff among its listeners and critics – decided to see just how edgy they could get with their 2004 album A Ghost Is Born. What that means, in plain terms, is lots of what one might call “noise” crossing through the album. For example, “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” has a few sections of ear-jarring guitar breaking up the vocals, until somewhere around 7:40 into it, the band as a whole seems to coalesce again around a central guitar-and-drums theme – except that a minute later, at 8:40, it’s back to a dominant guitar riff playing mock-punk with our senses all over again. (The song as a whole is close to 11 minutes long.)

The eleventh track, “Less Than You Think,” takes a different approach: with a total length of 15:04, on my first listen I thought my stereo was suddenly channeling The Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” or perhaps had been taken over by some Nauman-esque / John Cage experiment. More than 12 minutes of the song consists of a not-quite-silence, which eventually grows into a full-fledged experience of vibrating, crackling background noise. “Wishful Thinking,” while shorter than the other two, also starts with an off-putting cacophony.

Several years later, this album is only now receiving from me the attention it otherwise might have had back in 2004 – the attention I wanted to give, because I wanted not to be one of those Wilco fans pushed away by the intentional effort at breaking through my placid devotion. We can thank the iPod for virtually forcing me to listen when I might not have done so otherwise, because the band succeeded in its effort to startle audiences, and it’s a shame because there is much here to enjoy. “Muzzle of Bees” and “The Late Greats” are both beautiful songs, steeped in the Wilco tradition but still evolutionary steps forward; the same is true of “Wishful Thinking,” once one gets past the introduction. In my less-devout moments, I’ve thought of re-mixing the album myself, using my computer’s sound editors, to create what (in my head) I have renamed A Ghost Is Reborn, editing out all of the noise-nonsense. (I’m not the only one, of course.) And that’s what it is, really, noise-nonsense. I’m on record as writing that I think Being There is a phenomenal album, and it has its cacophonous moments, too – but they are all used to good effect, defining a style that brought country and rock together in the crash of piano and drums. The intent, and the result, was sublimely creative, not alienating.

With Wilco’s new album slated for release in May (and now leaking out, as others have, over the internet several months before official distribution), it is a good time to re-assess the band’s last disc – and to hope for something a little more clear-headed the next time around. We’ll know soon.


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