Someone dug up Rob Mitchum’s 2004 Pitchfork review of A Ghost is Born and started passing it around Twitter this past week. He gave it a 6.6! I’m a big fan of Mitchum’s work (check out his excellent Dead podcast, 36 From The Vault, with Steven Hyden), and it’s very interesting to go back and read this sort of stuff from a vantage point 16 years out.
Mitchum’s basic contention is that Jeff Tweedy, who had not yet solidified the band under its present-day lineup, was stuck in some sort of praise/damnation cycle by the music press and in a drug-addled languor of his own making, unable to develop anything really *interesting*. The well had run dry, Mitchum is sort of arguing, 10 years into the Wilco experiment.
“…for an artist as lyrically and vocally gifted as Tweedy to resort to expressing emotions through age-old bombast and pyrotechnics, something must be gumming up the songwriting works,” he writes.
The album is certainly less consistent than Yankee, for instance, swerving almost savagely between a passable Krautrock head-bobber in Spiders/Kidsmoke and the bucolic wood-whittling in Muzzle of Bees and then into one of the band’s few spot-on send-ups of a late-era Beatles hit in Hummingbird. But that’s the story, I think.
By this point, and maybe it’s only clear well *after* 2004, but by this point Tweedy was far along the work of cultivating his own purpose-driven sense of self. Whatever comes out comes out: That seems to be the message of a lot of his work (the guy titled an entire album “Star Wars,” for Christ’s sake, and then followed it with “Schmilco”). It’s not slapdash at all, but in the 21st century, that creative process is a helpful reminder to anyone making art. Let it be. Ship it. On to the next adventure.
“Nevertheless, A Ghost Is Born squanders its second-half capital in the final reel, whipping up an impenetrable, unnecessary 10-minute noise squall to conclude the thin-ice beauty of ‘Less Than You Think,'” Mitchum writes. “In interviews, Tweedy has explained the segment as a aural replica of the migraines that propelled him towards pharmaceuticals, but even the deepest empathy won’t prevent its unrewarding drone from propelling listeners towards the ‘>>’ button. Hit it, and you’re treated to the forgettable ‘Late Greats,’ rock-by-numbers with lyrics that unfortunately seem to indicate Tweedy’s complaisance with the obscurity = good, radio = bad logic of his loudest booster-critics.”
That’s just a great paragraph, with enough truth even now to serve as a powerful indictment of Tweedy’s impulses. But I’d push back: That tendency you’re hearing in Less Than You Think is a) an extension of what Jay Bennett and Jim O’Rourke had helped Tweedy explore in previous recording sessions and onstage at gigs, and b) a mood-enhancing drug that would come to dominate Wilco’s live performances to this day. As far as The Late Greats? It’s a shit-kicker of an encore. Whether Tweedy is spending too much time reading reviews is harder to parse here; I think you can go back the guy’s adolescence and find plenty of evidence of this attraction to obscure rock ‘n roll. The guy grew up as a shy punk nerd in Bellevue, Illinois! That said, I enjoyed Mitchum’s use of “complaisance” here.
In retrospect, AGIB is the band’s crossroads album, sure, a gate between the early years of ascent and the later, more mature formation that Tweedy would direct toward ambitious, self-aware projects like Solid Sound, Ode to Joy, “Art of Almost” (!), and even his own appearances in Portlandia, stuff like that. It’s all of a piece.
I give it a 7.3.