'Ghost' of a chance?
Can Wilco ever live up to — or live down — its myth?
It's 2001, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy stands backstage at a meet-and-greet session following a solo acoustic show. The scruffy singer/songwriter, looking like a holdover from the grunge era in a button-down work shirt, faded jeans and boots, is trying his best to answer questions from retailers and Warner Brothers executives about Wilco's forthcoming Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But he's plainly uncomfortable. When asked to describe its sound, the heretofore coherent singer becomes halting and inarticulate: "Big open spaces between what's supposed to be, like, the music part. I dunno," he abruptly declares, walking away. "I'm gone."
This scene, which comes about 20 minutes into Sam Jones' Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, is a perfect omen of the record company crisis yet to come. It's also a potent symbol of Tweedy's uneasy relationship to industry suits, and even his fans.
Much has transpired since that scene took place. Wilco has gone from a small band with a cultish following to a heavily hyped, critically loved behemoth. And rock critics are heaping praise — a little more than is warranted — on the band's latest album, A Ghost Is Born. They laud its mix of understatement and obstinacy, even while couching those accolades with qualifiers. Rolling Stone makes unsurprising comparisons to canonical figures such as Neil Young and the Band; it also calls Ghost "eerie." Spin labels it both "engagingly complex" and "willfully obscure"; The New York Times declares it "stunning" and "an evasive maneuver, intended to frustrate listeners."
Such analyses don't go quite far enough: Ghost is both defined and muted by bipolar disorder. It shimmers between agreeable pop-rock convention and deliberate indulgence, often within the same song. "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" splits its focus between metronomic Krautrock, quirky guitar leads and a stomping, classic-rock riff lifted from Rush's "Xanadu." The polarizing "Less Than You Think" begins as a soothing, piano-based ballad before paddling slowly into a 12-minute tidal pool of gadget-loop buzz. Even the gorgeous, comparatively straightforward "Wishful Thinking" is garnished with a 45-second intro of rattling hum. The results yield a surprising lack of emphatic payoffs, devoid of both traditional verse-chorus-verse catharsis and the substantive art-from-chaos explorations of Sonic Youth.
But music press tastemakers can't simply shrug off Ghost as an occasionally diverting record and call it a day — not after having elevated Foxtrot into one of the decade's landmark achievements. Foxtrot, you'll recall, was famously rejected in 2001 by the band's Warner Brothers-distributed label, Reprise, which heard little commercial appeal in its intriguingly dissonant textures and disintegrating transitions.
Wilco streamed the album on its website, performed its songs for appreciative concert audiences, and after being dropped by Reprise, eventually landed at the niche label Nonesuch (which, in a bit of irony, is also a subsidiary of Warner Brothers). The media latched onto the story, and who could blame them? The David-and-Goliath angle made for great drama — especially when, upon its release in 2002, Foxtrot became the band's most commercially successful album to date.
But the story didn't stop there. A phalanx of critics eagerly named Foxtrot the year's best album. The record also spawned a small cottage industry, in the form of Jones' documentary and Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot's band biography Wilco: Learning How to Die. As a result, Wilco found that it had inadvertently traded one set of expectations for another. Instead of being pressured to churn out singles, it was now in an even more unenviable position. It had been anointed as a larger-than-life, quote-unquote "important" band, synonymous with artistic triumph and depth.
"There is sort of a myth around [Wilco] at this moment," concedes Kot, who says he's as surprised as anyone by that development. "When I got the deal to do the book in 2001, I thought I had this interesting story about a little band and its experiences with the record industry. I turned to my wife and said, 'I wonder if anybody's gonna care about this two years from now. There's a very good chance no one's gonna give a shit.' I don't want to speak ... for the band, but I think they're hoping that [the myth] goes away sooner rather than later."
There can be little doubt of that, given that the empirical evidence suggests Wilco is ill-suited for a career in the "important" spotlight. From its humble roots-rock origins through its lushly orchestrated, dark-pop highlight Summerteeth, Wilco has entrenched itself firmly as a cult band, not prone to arena-friendly statements of either the lyrical or musical variety. U2, or even Radiohead, in other words, it's not.
In fact, from Summerteeth onward, Wilco has proven itself definable only by ever-changing idiosyncrasies (and lineup; Tweedy seems to run through band members like tissue). Tweedy's former band Uncle Tupelo played a quantifiable role in kick-starting the alt-country movement and its bible, the magazine No Depression, named after one of Uncle Tupelo's albums. But there's little chance of latter-day Wilco sparking a similar movement, nor of a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot magazine popping up to chronicle it.
Moreover, with the exception of Kurt Cobain, it's difficult to imagine an artist less suited than Tweedy to the pressures of being tagged an "important" songwriter. Both Kot's book and the Jones documentary paint Tweedy as a genial, confident performer who's also painfully insecure: prone to migraines and crippling anxiety attacks, often barely up to the task of confronting a bandmate or even ordering a pizza. (Somewhat ironically, Tweedy struck an unintentional rock-star posture earlier this year when he entered rehab for addiction to painkillers.)
But as Ghost fortuitously proves, it's that same fragile persona that presents Wilco's best chances of wriggling out from underneath its burdensome legend. The album's tension derives from its passive resistance to the audience's expectations; its boldness stems in large part from its docility, its desire to challenge listeners not head-on with aggressive left turns, but — on songs like "Less Than You Think" — through testing the limits of their patience.
"People I know were genuinely pissed when they heard Ghost," Kot says. But "[Other] people realize, 'Oh, OK, this really is a cult band that's not gonna sell a lot of records.' They've never aimed for that. They make music that pleases them at that moment."
Kot's "them" is, of course, really just a "him." But the subtext is clear: In the long run, Jeff Tweedy seems unlikely to stay in one place long enough for any but the most genuine fans of his amorphous vision to follow.