A Ghost is Born – WilcoSonic Nurse – Sonic Youth
Nonesuch Records 79809
Geffen Records 254912
I've started writing this – a joint review of Wilco's A Ghost Is Born and Sonic Youth’s Sonic Nurse, based on the premise that Jim O’Rourke produced both of ‘em – several times. But, each time, I just end up listening to Ghost, and never quite make it to the Sonics. That’s not because Sonic Nurse is a bad album (though it certainly hasn’t grabbed me), but because A Ghost Is Born is a really, really good album (as good, I think, as 2002’s much jizzed-over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot).
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy has been charged with a whole litany of critical crimes lately. A Ghost Is Born is too experimental. A Ghost Is Born is too poppy. Tweedy is taking his fans for granted. Tweedy is fucking with his fans. Wilco is for baby boomers too dulled by years of VH1 to know what rock is anymore. Wilco is for teeny-boppers who are too young to know rock is at all. Wilco isn’t experimental. Wilco isn’t rock. Wilco isn’t alt-country. Wilco are too popular. Nobody really listens to Wilco anyway. Y’know somethin’? Fuck ‘em. Fuck all of ‘em. A Ghost Is Born is a surprising album filled with great songwriting.
What can't be argued is that the band is trying things they've never done on disc before. Several of the songs (including the opening "At Least That's What You Said") are driven by scrappy Neil Young-like guitar jams. "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" is propelled by a repetitive minimalist groove that acts as a slate for Tweedy's gnarled solos (if you dig the intro to "I'm The Man Who Loves You" from YHF, these are for you). Elsewhere, on "Less Than You Think" (the penultimate track), the album melts into a long piece of high-pitched ambient electronica. On first listen, it seems to be a hearty "fuck you," ala the all-feedback-no-guitars of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. But who is Tweedy trying to cast off? I think it’s awfully pretty, piercing tones blooming in stereo like an electronic lotus.
But all of that is just window dressing. A Ghost is Born is about the songwriting, stupid. Stylistic deconstruction aside, the songs flow from section to section in a manner that sounds jarring at first, but really just adds to the drama. "At Least That’s What You Said" leads the album off with what sounds like a typically wistful Tweedy ballad, before pounding into the song’s hard groove. "Hummingbird," meanwhile, might well be Tweedy’s finest effort to date. Driven by a Beatles-like piano rhythm, the haunting lyrics are Tweedy’s best writing — haunting character establishment ("his goal in life was to be an echo," "a cheap sunset on a television set could upset her") with overtones of a short story-like plot, nearly concrete scenes ("so he slept on a mountain / in a sleeping bag underneath the stars / he would lie awake and count them…") with a pleasingly elongated rhyme scheme ("mountain" and "count them" don’t exactly rhyme, but Tweedy doesn’t force it either), and an emotionally sing-song chorus ("remember to remember me…") with a wonderful central image ("...standing still in your past / floating fast like a hummingbird").
And then – then – there’s the arrangement and production — all kinds of build-ups and drop-outs — violin colorations, the quiet chorus (delicately doubled the second time around, then sprung to a pitch-perfect falsetto on the third go, which feeds into a heavenly vocal section and the reintroduction of the violin). All of the instruments are mixed clear and dry — a hallmark of O’Rourke’s production on his solo pop albums. John Stirratt’s bass is a surprisingly important voice on Ghost, too, offering confidently melodic counterpoints to Tweedy’s nervous melodrama (check the intro to "Handshake Drugs"). O’Rourke’s work is magnificent. Where YHF reveled in the chaos of the band’s layered noise experiments, Ghost is methodical and easier to parse. Less really is more.
O'Rourke is the contemporary equivalent of Brian Eno, who – through the '70s and '80s – acted as producer to numerous avant-pop acts (Talking Heads, David Bowie, Devo) while churning out his own series of expressively beautiful solo records that alternated between lush rock (Another Green World) and ambient (Music For Airports). O’Rourke, present on the Chicago improv scene for nearly a decade before moving to New York to join Sonic Youth a few years back, mixed YHF, has released both amazing indie-pop (2001’s Insignificance) and more personal electronic experiments (1997’s slowly building electro-acoustic drone, Happy Days). If his work on Ghost tends towards the former, his work on Sonic Nurse is nearly transparent.
His specific musical contributions to Sonic Youth don't particularly leap out. That's fine — it means he really is a bandmember and not just a late-addition hired gun to the 20-year old New York City noise band. His job on Sonic Nurse is to organize the band’s explosive feedback and sort it out in the mix. As a result, like Ghost, the final product is highly methodical, and sounds great. The problem, though, is the songwriting. The melodies lose the simple beauty of Murray Street, the band’s 2002 beauty. Likewise, the arrangements retain little of the grandeur that the group seemed to adopt for Murray Street. The songs are still multi-sectioned, though and (as usual) the guitars are still shimmering and gorgeous. "Dripping Dream" runs through a half-dozen sections, out from a stop-time verse section that seems as if it should rock harder than it does and through changes that never quite arrive at a destination (even though they seem to be striving for one) other than a too-short meltdown before the band returns to the verse.
The band's dynamics are still intact, showing off their chemistry during the harmonic-rich thunder of the Kim Gordon-sung "Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream." In places ("Stones") they hit on the rhythmically mutated Allmans harmony guitar lines that they introduced on 2002's Murray Street. The Sonics are getting jammier by the year, too. On "Dude Ranch Nurse," they come as close to grooving as they’ve ever attempted, sounding like a slow motion rendition of the Grateful Dead’s "Shakedown Street." And, like the Dead, they achieve an effortless mellowness that occasionally borders on lethargic. It’s a new sound for the band, though hinted at previously, and feels like a natural direction.
Lee Ranaldo's "Paper Cup Exit" comes on like a dissonant Pink Floyd. Unfortunately, it shifts to a chorus which – like most of the album – can't decide if it rocks or not — the band's energy too high for anything else, the softly mic'ed drums and dulcet tones too pretty to abet it. "New Hampshire" seems too fast for its own good. Slowed down to an oozing Velvet Underground-like stomp, the song's guitar melodies would unfurl with psychedelic grandeur. On the introduction to "I Love You Golden Blue" – the disc's penultimate track, before Thurston Moore's politically charged "Peace Attack" – the band finally graces a territory as lovely as Washing Machine’s "Diamond Sea" before dropping into a perfectly laid back groove replete with a breathy Kim Gordon vocal: a model for a new era Sonic Youth cut.
The encouraging news, though, is that it's not merely a holding pattern. The band is putting their best foot forward, and changing naturally, in that sort of late period glide that career musicians seem to enter in their 40s — music that's wonderful in its own way, though not as immediately exciting as their earlier work. That doesn't mean that I won't grow to love it in time but, for now, it's A Ghost Is Born that I wanna fire up. I got both discs at around the same time, and have lived with them for a few months now. Because of that, and the O’Rourke connection, it’s hard not to stack ‘em up against each other — both are long-term acts that I admire deeply. But, frankly, Wilco’s at that stage where they’re still in uncharted territory (for them), so – as it rains down on the basketball court on a dreary Friday afternoon – it’s Wilco that I listen to and love every bit and byte.