Wilco's A Ghost Is Born doesn't sound much like its predecessor, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. In fact, it doesn't sound much like any Wilco album, except when it sounds like old Wilco tracks played at the wrong speed. Still, it follows logically from what's come before. Where much of Foxtrot's appeal came from finding art in the sound of a world crumbling, Ghost's comes from the necessity of making music for the day after.
It's not easy. Widespread public indifference ended Big Star, but could that band have put out a sequel to Sister Lovers? Fortunately, Wilco has better luck. Continuing its collaboration with producer and sonic brinkman Jim O'Rourke, the group recorded Ghost amid well-publicized personnel shifts and the personal upheavals that recently turned frontman Jeff Tweedy into a reluctant headline-maker. The album wears its troubles openly and doesn't suffer for it: Who wants to record sunny music when what's going on inside sounds more like the gray Michigan landscapes of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and the endless drone of "Less Than You Think"?
Both of those tracks clock in at more than 10 minutes, and the latter will try the patience of even diehard fans, but for the most part, Ghost channels its shaggy sound into pop music. True, it's pop music that constantly threatens to erupt into noise or fade into silence, but it's still hard not to hum along.
Sounding at first like a lost track from The Band, "Hell Is Chrome" summons that vision of a soul slipping away into parts unknown, and if the album has a lyrical theme, it's the difficulty of holding on to that slippery essence. "Theologians don't know nothing about my soul," Tweedy sings on "Theologians," the album's most instantly memorable track. But the best he can counter with is a promise to disappear. "The Late Greats" shifts from a catalog of unheard musical giants into the lament "The best life never leaves your lungs." A Ghost Is Born is shot through with the fear of never quite saying what it means, never quite getting it right, and maybe losing it all in the process. However paradoxically, that's what makes it a great record. At one point, Tweedy chants the title to faintly creepy effect, but the beauty of A Ghost Is Born comes from hearing the band struggle to turn spirit into flesh.