Sunday, July 8, 2012

The One Chance I Gave Wilco Found That A Blah Is Born.

The Good: Moments of sound, Some of the lyrics
The Bad: Most of the vocals are produced over, Musically dull, Many dull lyrics, Overproduced and disappointing
The Basics: I give Wilco a chance and end up bored after six listens to A Ghost Is Born; no need for you to make the same mistake.

I honestly don't remember how I came to pick up the Wilco album A Ghost Is Born. I know I requested the one c.d. that was in my local library system's repertoire, but I don't even recall how I came to find out about the existence of Wilco and decide to listen to one of their albums. Yet, A Ghost Is Born arrived, I've listened to it six times now and I'm pretty much done with that. I don't know how I came to Wilco, but I know why I'm leaving them behind; A Ghost Is Born did not impress me.

My first listen to A Ghost Is Born put me right on edge; the music was dull, repetitive, heavily-produced and most of the lyrics were obscured by the mediocre mix of guitars, pianos/organs, sirens and other production elements and I found myself at the end of the album wondering just what I might write. Subsequent listens opened me up to the moments when Wilco sounds like what David Bowie would be making if he were covering The Beatles now (like on "Hummingbird"), but for the most part, this album and the band made virtually no impression and A Ghost Is Born is ultimately disposable as a result.

With twelve tracks clocking in at 67:32, A Ghost Is Born is the result of the creative genius of Jeff Tweedy and the rest of the band Wilco. Tweedy wrote or co-wrote all of the songs and the band is credited with co-producing the album with Jim O'Rourke, so this seems like it is very much within the creative control of the group. This is what Wilco has to say.

And I've no idea what they are trying to say. A Ghost Is Born features a light pop-rock sound that seems at moments like it might be venturing into more experimental or electric sound. Actually, the album keeps a pretty mellow sound all the way through and while the music is somewhat difficult to define, "light pop" actually does seem to cover the entire album well. It is pop dressed up with bells ("Company In My Back") and a siren (the criminally annoying "Less Than You Think").

The sound is overwhelmingly mellow with keyboards, pianos and limited percussion driving most tracks, with the vocals providing a narcoleptic sound, as if the lead singer himself were sleepwalking through the experience of making the music. And while the sound is slightly different from the usual keyboard/bass/drums type ensemble, this is not like listening to Bjork, for example. A Ghost Is Born is nowhere near as unfamiliar in its compositions as, say, Verspertine.

But there is one advisor who often pops up with the comment "But what does it sound like?!" and that seems a good point to start with this Wilco album. While it does not specifically sound like any one artist, there are tracks that sound like early Bowie, some that sound like early '80's pop-rock or Supertramp (like "Theologians"), a little bit of The Beatles, and even The White Stripes on "I'm A Wheel." The homogenous sound of the album is mellow and muted. This is a pop-rock album that is largely quieter and presents tracks usually driven by keyboards with the vocals being both featured and smothered by the instrumentals. This might seem like a contradiction, but the truth is, the vocals can be heard on almost every track . . .

. . . they just cannot be understood. On songs like "Less Than You Think," Tweedy's vocals are front and center, equal with the production elements up until the three minute mark where the vocals cut out and an annoying siren begins to build up until one wonders what the musical point is of the fire alarm. Seriously, it's more a psychological experiment in who will sit through over ten minutes of a siren rather than a serious musical experiment. There's no real intrigue to the sound and the vocals are so garbled before the sirens that it seriously projects very few of the actual lyrics.

This is in very real contrast to the track that follows, "The Late Greats," wherein Tweedy breaks out with his vocals, actually sounding much like the lead singer of Weezer. His vocals are clear, articulate and he makes his singsong lyrics ring out to actually SAY SOMETHING. Unfortunately, it is the last track and by that point in every listen to this album, I had lost interest in hearing what the band wanted to say. After all, if they had something to say, why doesn't Wilco just say it right from the beginning?

Instead Tweedy and Wilco mumble through the first eleven tracks (though, to be fair, moments of the opening track "At Least That's What You Said" and "Handshake Drugs" can be comprehended) or sublimate their vocals to the unextraordinary instrumentals. So, for example, on that opening track, Tweedy's voice is balanced to compete with the piano at the beginning and the piano holds its own with his voice until the electric guitar comes in and drowns both out. The point is, very few of the lyrics can actually be understood because Tweedy mumbles throughout the album with his smooth, mid-range voice.

That said, picking up the lyrics from the liner notes is no great experience in poetry or music. Some of the lines, even from songs with a wonderful message, fall short of being truly profound. For example, in the anti-capitalist anthem "Company In My Back," which could be a decent song of resistance, there is the early line, "I attack with love, pure bug beauty, curl my lips and crawl up to you / and your afternoon / and I've been puking." Not, truly, the most incredible sentiment to be expressing.

Some of the songs are pathetically repetitive as well. "I'm A Wheel" repeats the title five times in the 2:33 song before degenerating into a string of "turn on you"'s. It's dull and it says what it needs to in thirty seconds and drags the rest of the song out.

In fact, the only lines that truly meant much to me were the final lines on the album, long after I stopped caring. Amid the more traditional pop-rock song, "The Late Greats" came the closing lines, "The best songs will never get sung / the best life never leaves your lungs / so good you won't ever know / you'll never hear it on the radio / can't hear it on the radio." As one of those type artists who few people find my work, I can appreciate that sentiment, that there is a world filled with creative people that almost no one knows about. But then, that is one stanza on an album over an hour long.

And it is clear Wilco is not all about the lyrics. What they want to say, they want to say through music, which is why there are tracks like "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" where most of the lyrics are all done by the four minute mark, yet the song goes on for another seven minutes (to be fair there are a few lines from 6 - 7 minutes, but . . .). The song is about guitars and the hypnotic produced bassline.

Ultimately, I don't know who would like Wilco's A Ghost Is Born because it simply bored me and made me feel like I was wasting time listening to it when there were other things I could be listening to. I won't make that mistake again. I think I'll go pop in Play - The B-Sides to clear my palate. That much better work by Moby is reviewed here!

The only track worth listening to is "The Late Greats."

For other, similar, artists be sure to check out my reviews of:
Cex Cells - Blaque Audio
Eveningland - Hem
The Uninvited - The Uninvited


Check out my other music reviews by visiting my Music Review Index Page!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. You really need to listen to Sky Blue Sky if you want to give Wilco a chance. It's a much better album in all ways possible.

  2. When the sting is gone from giving this album a shot, I'll look into that one! Thanks!