Wilco (The Album), And A Ghost Is Born

What are we to make of the fact that Wilco has released a fine eponymous album within a week of former member Jay Bennett’s death from an overdose of painkillers? Bennett’s departure from the band after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot removed a destabilizing, if creative, element from the band, and judging from what they’ve produced with the new, by now five-year old lineup — not to mention Jeff Tweedy’s sobriety and seriousness of purpose — the band is better off for his absence.  And yet Bennett’s role as a ghost in the machine has now reached spectral dimensions, RIP.

The album showcases all that’s been good and not so good since A Ghost Is Born.  The guitar interplay between Tweedy and Nels Cline is spectacular.  Not all of the songs thrill, and instead of Southern three-chord rock,  the dynamic stems from subtle guitar squalls rising over placid oceans.  And then there are songs like “Bull Black Nova,” which make you want to shout out loud as the band moves with the liquidity of  mercury through the boogie pop slalom — “96 Tears” as played by Television.  The title song — its title taking PIL’s genericism one step further by being entitled “Wilco” — gets the album off at a thrilling tempo, and it seems perfectly clear to me that Tweedy must have been playing the live version of Derek & The Dominos “Got To Get Better In A Little While” on that long flight to New Zealand, where Wilco went to record Wilco.   (Listen to the two songs back to back…)

There was a time when I was ambivalent about Wilco’s greatness, but everything they’ve done in this decade makes a claim for greatness.  I no longer have the beef that Tweedy seems to glorify heroin.  What he and Nels Cline do on guitars is as great as Verlaine and Lloyd, Moore and Renaldo, Hitchcock and Rew.  Sometimes the songs are pretty for pretty’s sake, and yeah, without Jay Bennett they’ve lost a certain edge.  No matter.  They’re a great band, and following hard on the spectacular Sky Blue Sky, Wilco (the album), delivers the goods.

Note, and plug for a friend: The great drummer — and great guy — Brendan Canty has filmed a wonderful documentary on Wilco entitled Ashes of American Flags.  Don’t wait for it to be available on SnagFilms.com — go buy it at the iTunes story.

One Response to “Wilco (The Album), And A Ghost Is Born”

  1. John,

    I saw Wilco at Jazz Fest this year, and they were exceptional. The set I saw very much supports your review. I had lost interest in Wilco in recent years for some of the same reasons, but their performance in New Orleans rekindled my fan-dom.


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