A friend of mine wrote a poem in response to Wilco's "Heavy Metal Drummer", from their critically acclaimed album "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot", in which she explained why girls always go for the singer, and never the drummer. This doesn't really illustrate anything about Wilco, except that smart people really like their music, so much so that they write love letters to Jeff Tweedy disguised as poems trying to looks as smart as they think he is. And while that's not likely to change upon hearing the band's latest effort, "A Ghost Is Born", the more radio-friendly sound might broaden their audience beyond the sphere of literary indie-rock geeks.
It was during the recording of Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" that the process which began in 1994 (when Uncle Tupelo split off into Wilco and Son Volt) was finally completed: with the less than amicable departure of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennet, one of only two Wilco members besides Jeff Tweedy who had been around for the group's first album, Wilco officially became Jeff Tweedy's band. The rotating cast of characters that have surrounded him over the past few years include some of the most talented musicians in rock today, including drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalist/producer Jim O'Rourke (who is also a newly christened member of Sonic Youth), but as they have all made their arrivals and departures, it has become increasingly clear that Tweedy is Wilco; the other guys in the room with him will get their names in the liner notes, but they're only in the band as long as Tweedy wants them to be.
So "A Ghost Is Born" is Wilco's first pure Tweedy album since they began their drift away from the alt-country, no-depression sound forged by Uncle Tupelo, and towards a more experimental form of roots rock. As the singer, Tweedy has always gotten the most attention from the fans and the press (the literal voice of the band), but whereas eight of the eleven tracks on "Yankee" were collaborations between Tweedy and Bennet, eight of the twelve songs on "Ghost" are solo Tweedy compositions, and the remaining few tracks are one-offs with different songwriting partners each time. And though "Ghost" isn't as good as "Yankee", it's in the same way that Modest Mouse's "Good News for People Who Love Bad News" isn't as good as "The Moon and Antarctica": they're both stunning records that add significantly to the canons of groups whose music has been consistently compelling, but the second records just don't quite reach the masterwork status of their predecessors. There's also no knockout punch like there was on "Yankee", no "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" that you can point to and say, "This might be the best song this band has ever recorded."
Which isn't to say that there aren't plenty of great songs on "Ghost"; like "Yankee", there are no throwaways here (save for the last 12 1/2 minutes of the 15 minute long "Less Than You Think", which consists of nothing but a slowly building drone that Tweedy says is meant to mimic the onset of a migraine; it does that admirably, Jeff, but no one wants to hear it). The sound varies from piano ballads ("Less Than You Think", "Hell Is Chrome"); introspective summertime ditties ("Muzzle of Bees", "Hummingbird"); nocturnal musings ("Wishful Thinking", "At Least That's What You Said"); and even a few that can be classified as genuine rockers ("Handshake Drugs", "The Late Greats", "Company in My Back"). If you were crazy enough to think about choosing radio singles, you'd probably pick "Hummingbird", "I'm a Wheel", or "The Late Greats" (which, not coincidentally, are three of only five tracks that clock in under four and a half minutes), and maybe "Handshake Drugs", a rougher version of which was included on the download-only "More Like the Moon" EP that the band gave away last year to everyone who had purchased a copy of "Yankee".
"A Ghost Is Born" is the best fans could hope for after a landmark, genre-defying album like "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"; the band's essence remains intact, but they still show that they're not afraid to take risks and explore new territory. At the same time, they aren't pushing the eccentricity envelope just so they can say that this record is more challenging than it's predecessor. It's a solid effort that will be loved by longtime fans but which is also accessible enough to open up the band to new listeners, proving both that "Yankee" was no fluke and also that Tweedy isn't going to spend the rest of his career trying to make another record just like it.