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Ghost Stories 

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Ghost Stories


By Gilbert Garcia

Self-indulgence. It's one of the most common complaints leveled against recording artists by music critics. But when you really break it down, self-indulgence should be considered a virtue, because it's one of the essential qualities that separate an artist from a hack. True artists listen to their inner voices and let the commercial consequences be damned, while hacks calibrate and quantify for the marketplace.

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy is a self-indulgent artist in the best sense of that term. He writes in an insular dream language, but he's never obscure for the mere sake of obscurity. He's prone to go off on caterwauling guitar tangents and lengthy explorations of electronic white noise, purely because he gets off on the expressive possibilities of amplified sound. On Wilco's fifth album, A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy shows even less regard for the conventions of pop record-making than he did on the band's wildly acclaimed 2002 release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the result is another untidy classic.

On the insistent "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," with the exception of a thunderous instrumental break in the middle, the band devotes nearly 11 minutes to a repetitive one-chord vamp while Tweedy sings about spiders filling out tax returns and recent rashes of kidsmoke. Meanwhile, "Less Than You Think" rides into the murky sunset on a 12-minute coda of ambient, tape-loop hiss.

A Ghost Is Born

Wilco

(Nonesuch)
If "Spiders" is Wilco's "Sister Ray" - and the anarchic amateurism of Tweedy's lead guitar on this song is such a dead ringer for Velvets-era Lou Reed that it feels like an homage - then A Ghost Is Born is their White Light/White Heat, an album more about capturing the real-time interplay of a band than about showcasing a new set of tunes. Even gems like "Muzzle of Bees" and the melancholy opener "At Least That's What You Said" ultimately give way to ensemble jams that transform resignation into catharsis.

With each album, Tweedy becomes less encumbered by form, less self-conscious, and less subject to categorization. Thankfully, he's also becoming more self-indulgent.

By Gilbert Garcia


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September 23, 2020

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