A ghost is born and reviewed

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.

Welcome! This is a farmhouse…

Here‘s Trey Anastasio with a nice piece of writing on the original Farmhouse demos (including a beautiful early recording with Tom Marshall handling vocals during one of their long weekend hang sessions in a rented house somewhere in northern Vermont). The joy in Tom’s voice is awesome.

The backstory is a classic bit of Phish arcana from one of the band’s great peaks, 1999-2000. This album was one of the first things that really got me into Phish only a few years later, and it’s still arguably the most habitable entry point for anyone interested in taking a global pandemic as an excuse to spend some serious time diving headlong into that goofy-ass rock band your pal Eric is always talking about. Here’s Trey:

“I started strumming and Tom started singing, and since he didn’t have any lyrics, he reached over and grabbed the note that the owner of the house had left for us and began reading it, verbatim.

“’Welcome! This is a farmhouse, we have cluster flies, alas, and this time of year is bad…’

“And on it went from there. I love the chorus, ‘I never ever saw the northern lights, I never really heard of cluster flies!'”

Anyway, here we are: digging through the music we love as weather patterns tilt and bend outside out window. Crisis everywhere. My favorite version of the song that I’ve seen live was 12/30/17, deep in the second set, as Madison Square Garden zipped through outer space. And for all I know, we’re still at the show, grooving hard in sepia tone and drifting closer to the new year, the fourth turning of some great cosmic story we can’t yet know.

Reopening into the hateful status quo

I’ve been following Umair Haque’s blog for years. He could use a good copy editor, so pardon the punctuation. For a long time, though, his basic thesis is that America is collapsing into a fascist state (a phrase that we need to be using on a regular basis) and that the window of opportunity to realize a new, more equitable future is rapidly closing. The door is nearly shut now.

Reading this (or even the New York Times opinion page, for heaven’s sake), it’s jarring to place economic forecasts alongside the giddy social media posts about people returning to bars and restaurants this week “because we’re all ganna die anyway lol! Gatta live your life!” The short-term need to tell moderate liberal politicians to fuck off is outweighing the long-term health of what little remains of a shared democracy. There’s a chance to reorganize how we understand one another in society, how we live, and the coronavirus pandemic has given us a great reason to set aside the mundane perks of modern dining and really think about what a better world might look like. Again, the door is nearly shut, but we’ve been given a time-out at the 11th hour to reconsider what’s happened to date. A very grim, tragic time-out, but nonetheless we can make outsize moves in a different direction if we collectively decide to do so. Think of it like a social contract amendment that needs to be signed, like, before the end of the day.

Here, Haque illustrates the five transformations of an economic collapse. (The political collapse is well under way, as defined by any number of basic flow charts into fascist rule.) This is all very relatable stuff, very clear economic readout. “Why is it that the average American is the only person in the rich world by now who votes against their own healthcare, retirement, education, childcare, and so on?” he writes. “Because they can’t afford it.”

This is the baseline for what we had going *into* 2020, and this is the very economic/political mismatch that breeds anger, resentment, violence, dehumanization. This is the status quo right now, anxiety and antipathy on a sprawling scale. Look — that door’s closing fast!

“As a result of depression, an economy’s whole structure tends to change,” Haque writes. And this is the inverted curve we’re already seeing, all very obvious, where the middle class shrinks to a minority. It’s very plain to see in quality-of-life metrics comparing today’s young workers to someone graduating fairly debt-free from a four-year university in 1975. (Now, if I hear one fucking millennial joke…) “The gentle bell curve of a modern society — a broad middle — is so crucial because it underpins and anchors democracy. Democracy is a luxury. It takes time, money, effort. … America’s ruling class is now visibly made of predators, the kinds of men who put men in cages, or addict a whole society to painkillers, just to make more money they’ll never spend.”

It doesn’t happen all at once. Think of the Great Depression: It didn’t just zip by in a few weeks. The people who lived through that economic crisis surely realized that the entire vision and structure of society had changed around them, but perhaps only in retrospect. The day’s immediate needs do tend to outweigh the future’s vast consequence, but I don’t think it’s difficult, really, to try and look ahead to what’s coming. It’s not good. And whatever it is, it doesn’t give a fuck if you’re going to your favorite restaurant this week or not.

Looking ahead, now

At the risk of downplaying the public health threat, I think this essay touches something very important. If you’ve been looking for a chance to put your money where your mouth is, there’s a crystal-clear opportunity knocking on your door (to mix metaphors a bit). I’ve been amazed/unsurprised to see major commercial brands tilting their messaging into the pandemic. It’s chilling.

“Gaslighting,” “#resistance,” these terms are overused to the point of gimmicky advertising in their own right. But they do serve a purpose. They’re a reminder of how reality itself is being remade under our prevailing economic structure. This has been long in the works in places like America, and the coronavirus outbreak has obviously exposed the most blatant inequality gaps.

I don’t think we’ll be “going back to normal,” but there are two ways of reading that. We can either slip more deeply into an oligarchic kakistocracy (this would be the easiest move, the closest we can get to “normal”) or we can use individual choices to throw off demand curves for the most despicable capitalist vectors: meat farms, the dairy industry, six-lane highways, gun manufacturers, charter schools, private health insurers, fracking companies, the iHeart Radio Music Festival.

What does this mean? Eating less meat, for starters; using your car more conscientiously and investing in public transit, disowning guns as the farce they are, promoting literacy and engaging your local public school district, shifting incrementally to a solar energy structure at home, disowning corporate-sponsored music.

And at the risk of oversimplifying, this seems like a helpful riff on Pascal’s wager, a modern economic gamble that might just pay off for future generations. What’s the downside?

Burn one down

As the strange, paranoid month of 4/20 comes to a close, let’s pass it over to Ben Harper to play us out. I still think this is one of the great pothead songs, a clarion call for community and self-actualization, all the affirmations of the cannabis plant wrapped up in a slinky riff that’s easy enough for even the laziest college freshman to learn on an acoustic guitar.

Cannabis has played an important role in my life since the first time I zoned out completely on bright green trees and cartoonish outlines of objects sometime in high school. It totally blew my mind and got me thinking about the electric fringes of everything: art, music, cooking, writing, the whole of the creative universe. There were years when I spent too much time with it, years when I stepped away from it entirely, and years when I met it only occasionally in lamplit bedrooms or in heady crowds with live music cresting off a nearby stage, all reverential and giddy-like. But it’s always been there, one of life’s great treasures, a wonderful plant that opens doors and bends sunlight just so.

Earth Day

On Earth Day, here‘s a great feature on how “zoonotic” disease and environmental destruction are intertwined.

“There are millions of viruses and bacteria out there that reside in wild animals and can potentially infect humans, and these emerging diseases are on the rise everywhere as humans disrupt ecosystems and exploit animal habitat across the globe. We are living in an age of pandemics, and the next one — let’s call it ‘Disease X,’ as scientists often do — could be even more devastating than COVID-19. …

“‘COVID-19 is just the latest zoonotic disease to emerge that has its roots in the rampant habitat loss occurring around the world and the burgeoning wildlife trade,’ a group of more than 100 conservation organizations wrote in a letter to the U.S. Congress last month, urging it to include in its stimulus bill new funding to combat the conditions that give rise to outbreaks like COVID-19. ‘Global pandemics will likely continue and even escalate if action isn’t taken.'”

The question, then, is how to shift our individual lifestyles while there’s still time. With all the dipshits in public office, it seems like that’s the only option — turning inward and running a grassroots marathon. So, what is it? Taking up a vegan diet? Planting more trees? Abandoning single-use plastics? Melting down your guns to adorable little metal figurines for your bookshelf?

Oh, and on a lighter note, here‘s one of the greatest environmental justice songs of the last 20 years.

Once in a lifetime

After the second chorus of Once in a Lifetime on “Stop Making Sense,” David Byrne pulls away from the mic and starts shaking like a gelatinous thing from outer space, some astral slug, and it’s just wonderful, and then, suddenly, Alex Weir moves into the shot, straight vamping on this tight scratch psychedelic riff, goddamn shredding this chord, and he’s all obscured in shadow, like and then he starts shaking too, echoing Byrne’s movements, crazy frantic, twin wildernesses blooming in moonlight and all that, true ecstatics, and Tina Weymouth’s bass is pounding the foundation of this brief moment, earth-thudding, like the sky splitting open and heaving onto the shore of every note you’ve ever heard, every song you’ve ever loved, the bass line itself a sort of stand-in for god, in the rhythmic sense of the word, a spoken symbol of groovy communion with the everlasting present, one with everything else.

To me, that’s what 420 means.