Ultimately, this is a disappointment, though I should clarify that it’s not because it’s worse than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot which, for me and for I imagine tons of others after Pitchfork gave it a perfect score was the entry point to the band. That statement frankly doesn’t need to be said unless you want to be dubbed Captain Obvious and thanked sarcastically and I don’t want either.
It’s a disappointment because “At Least That’s What She Said,” the opener and one of the best songs on the album (love how claustrophobic the guitar sounds, especially at the 4:00 mark, which leads to the descending drums to add to the chaos), suffers from a terrible mixing job – you’re going to thumb your Ipod’s volume knob all the way up during the soft parts to hear whatever Jeff Tweedy’s saying and then clamor to turn it down once the guitar workout begins because tinnitus is a serious illness, people. Compare this to the version on Kicking Television: Live in Chicago if you don’t believe me.
It’s a disappointment because “Hell is Chrome,” that follows, suffers from a terrible bridge (starting at the 2:50 mark) wherein it sounds like it’s going to launch into some badass proportions a la opener but it never does. Instead, the band just add play 70s sci-fi tones that should’ve been left in the 70s and the verse returns immediately after. What the fuck? Other than that, I like the catchy piano intro that hooks you and the good enough hook in the outro (“Come with me”) that makes it worth going through the sludge. I also like the muted guitar crunch (starting at the 1:08 mark) that pushes the song towards its edge and gives it an edge.
It’s a disappointment because “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” reminds me of “The Bogus Man” off Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure in that both are passable Krautrock imitations by bands that ought to have no business playing Krautrock, both have infectious grooves (quite like when Wilco breaks the established groove to establish a new one, ie. the 3:58 mark) and the rub: both go on for way too long. Rob Mitchum: “Where “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” spent its lengthy runtime constantly shapeshifting, “Spiders/Kidsmoke” seems to content to simply spins its wheels for upwards of 10 minutes.”
It’s a disappointment because “Muzzle of Bees,” the token alt-country track, has no excuse going on for as long as it does and its brightest idea – the climbing piano at the 1:16 mark that’s a brushstroke to paint Tweedy’s words into music (“With the breeze blown through / Pushed up against the sea / Finally back to me”) happens once and nevermore.
It’s a disappointment because “Handshake Drugs,” despite having Tweedy singing instead of whispering, goes on for way too long a lot of it is spent setting up for its “Karma Police”-like ending.
It’s a disappointment because “Theologians” offers no reason to listen to it over “Hummingbird.”
It’s a disappointment because “Less Than You Think,” the penultimate song, exists at all. Tweedy: “I know ninety-nine percent of our fans won’t like that song, they’ll say its (sic) a ridiculous indulgence. Even I don’t want to listen to it every time I play through the album. […] I wanted to make an album about identity, and within that is the idea of a higher power, the idea of randomness, and that anything can happen, and that we can’t control it.” I guess that includes bullshit seeping into albums.
It’s a disappointment because “The Late Greats,” the last song, wherein Tweedy complains about never being played on the radio (maybe a better melody would help) doesn’t make it worth trekking through “Less Than You Think.”
But ultimately, this is a disappointment because of how far the band miscalculates its own strengths. I suppose it’s our damn fault; dubbing them the “American Radiohead” put the notion in their head that they’d have to something – anything – different for A Ghost is Born. Tweedy’s response to the dismissal of Jay Bennett – who co-wrote most of the songs on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and played half the instruments on that very instrument-based album – is to increase the guitar and piano. Which meant two things: i) the colors that Bennett gave Yankee are completely gone and ii) Jeff Tweedy, who sang such affecting words in affecting ways on songs like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” “Jesus, etc.” and “Reservations,” is replaced by guitar and piano. Well, there are some really good lines on “Wishful Thinking” (ie. “Is any song worth singing / If it doesn’t help,” “An embarrassing poem / Was written when I was alone / In love with you” and “What would we be without wishful thinking”), but the song just frankly isn’t there.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the album’s greatest successes, the songs I haven’t mentioned in my takedown: the bouncy piano and sprinkled violin of “Hummingbird,” the riff-based “Company in my Back” and “I’m a Wheel” (because it’s hard to deny a hook like “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9! / Once in Germany someone said nein!” that signals the riff, the falsetto-ed “Turn on me,” and idiosyncrasies like “Ummmm” and “AHHHHH!!!!”), all closely resemble Summerteeth in that they’re just straight-forward tunes without the pretensions of being anything else and are (relatively) fast-paced, immediately standing out on an album full of songs that abuse their benzodiazepine prescriptions.
Happy 10th anniversary, I guess.