In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “There is a sound to this record that I feel like I can still hear to this day on subsequent albums.”
Two main things happened to Wilco in the wake of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. One, multi instrumentalist and Jeff Tweedy collaborator / nemesis Jay Bennett was gone. And two, the band had gone from being critical, alt favourites, to genuine super stars. Sure, they weren’t all of a sudden churning out top 40 hit singles, but they were now well and truly international headliners. So for the first time, the band wasn’t only under their own internal pressure to make something great, they also had a bigger audience than ever looking in from the outside, waiting to see where they went next, with A Ghost is Born.
From its morose, piano lead opening minutes, to the dirty, distorted guitar march that follows, At Least That’s What You Said makes it clear that a bigger audience didn’t mean Wilco was all of a sudden going to water things down to please them. With John Stirratt’s pumping bass, and Glenn Kotche’s tight drumming on a seemingly endless loop, Spiders (Kidsmoke) almost sounds like a piece of electronica. Even Tweedy’s vocals have a metronomic, automaton deadpan. Until it turns into some of the most straight ahead, riff heavy guitar rock I have ever heard Wilco produce in the studio.
Speaking of things I’d never heard from the band before, the jaunty piano and sunny vocals of Hummingbird makes for a Wilco combo that’s new to me. But it’s back to regular old melancholy set to gentle acoustic guitar, with a surprisingly peppy bassline on Handshake Drugs.
A Ghost is Born almost approaches punk rock with the upped tempo, erratic guitar work and general chaos of I’m a Wheel, while the piano lead bounce of Hummingbird returns on Theologians.
What can I say about Less Than You Think that Tweedy hasn’t already said himself, “I know ninety-nine percent of our fans won’t like that song, they’ll say it’s a ridiculous indulgence. Even I don’t want to listen to it every time I play through the album. But the times I do calm myself down and pay attention to it, I think it’s valuable and moving and cathartic. I wouldn’t have put it on the record if I didn’t think it was great … I wanted to make an album about identity, and within that is the idea of a higher power, the idea of randomness, and that anything can happen, and that we can’t control it.”
A Ghost is Born is also the first studio record with two members who helped see in what is now the most stable line up the band has ever seen. Drummer Glenn Kotche and keyboard / piano player Mikael Jorgensen were the beginnings of forming the solid foundation that would add guitarist Nels Cline and keyboardist / guitarist Pat Sansone a year or two later, for the line up that has served the band ever since. Tweedy’s fingerprints are still the most prominent with sole writing credits on all but four of the songs here, but there is a sound to this record that I feel like I can still hear now on subsequent albums from the current day version of the band.