It seems like the dust just settled from the controversy over Wilco’s critically lauded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—the departure of band members Ken Coomer and Jay Bennett, quarrels with Warner Bros. over the album’s “commercial viability” and the band’s $50,000 acquisition of their own studio tapes, and subsequent relocation to Nonesuch Records. (Wrap-up: Warner lost, and Yankee landed on countless best-of lists.) But it’s already been two years and the alt-country-turned-pop-rock band has returned with the underwhelming but attractive follow-up A Ghost Is Born. For a historically wily band, they’ve made a surprising effort to maintain Yankee‘s audience, and as such this veteran group’s latest feels a lot like a sophomore effort. Yankee‘s unique amalgam of new and old sounds—the wispy textures, dissonant chords, and glamorous production—have now been perfected, and while all signs of their country roots have been wiped away, the songs are remarkably well-preformed and more graceful than before. Indeed, A Ghost Is Born, like R.E.M.‘s Automatic For The People, is a refreshingly instrumental work. Grand piano arrangements, techno flourishes, and shiny pop melodies are boldly integrated into the songs’ traditional rock acoustics. But unlike R.E.M., Wilco often seems more concerned with mastering their distinctive sound than figuring out what to do with it, and their own affirmation of their ability to jam sometimes borders on the obscene (as in the 11-minute and 15-minute wank jobs “Spiders” and “Less Than You Think”). Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics don’t resonate the way they used to; the post-9/11 context that unified Yankee‘s maddening obsessions with sight and perception are now lost, and A Ghost Is Born‘s not-so-sincere ruminations are largely scattered and limp. From the tiresome take-me-back-or-don’t romantic reminiscence of “At Least That’s What You Said” to the curiously death-welcoming “Hell Is Chrome,” many of the songs are frustratingly unmoved and unengaged, falling miles short of the complex, humanistic ideas of Yankee‘s exhilarating “Kamera” and “War On War,” revelatory deconstructions of war that invite the listener to actually think. If only temporarily, Wilco seems to have given up on what made their music so great in the first place: meaning.
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