Less Than You Think... Or Maybe More
Jeff Tweedy hears music differently than do most mammals. He certainly hears it differently than I do, and he probably hears it differently than you do. I think this is why I've heard so many people claim that the latest Wilco record, A Ghost Is Born, is not as good as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Personally, I find that suggestion paradoxical; it seems like the songs on A Ghost Is Born are way, way more compelling in almost every potential context, and that this is Wilco's best work since Being There. But I can certainly understand how some might find the material on A Ghost Is Born to be either a) difficult or b) ridiculous; it strikes me as a remarkably easy album to criticize, assuming that's your inclination. However, I suspect that some of those same critics would love A Ghost Is Born if they heard music the way Tweedy hears music, or even if they merely thought about the nature of sound in the same way that he does.
Let me explain.
I interviewed Jeff Tweedy last spring. Our conversation took place roughly two months before A Ghost Is Born was released, which turned out to be an especially weird time to talk to him; Tweedy checked himself into a dual diagnosis rehab center for drug addiction and mental illness the day after we spoke. This retrospectively blew my mind, because--almost irrefutably--Tweedy had seemed like the most normal, most rational, most "together" rock musician I had ever interviewed. I could totally relate to almost everything he said, which sort of makes me wonder about myself. But ANYWAY, we were standing in the pantry of his home in northwest Chicago (he was looking for his stocking cap), and he started talking about how his eight-year-old son was the drummer in a grade school rock band called the Blisters. The Blisters mostly cover Jet songs. Now, just about everybody I know thinks Jet is ridiculous; they've become the band hipsters are legally required to hate. So I made some joke (and I have no idea why) about how Jet was totally fucking terrible, and that it's somehow predictable that the only people who would want to cover Jet songs would be second-graders. Tweedy didn't understand why I would say something like this. He looked at me like I had just made fun of a quadriplegic, and he asked, "Well, don't you like rock music?" And then I felt stupid, because I realized that a) Jet plays rock music, and that b) I like rock music, and that c) I actually like Jet, both tangibly and intangibly. So that was the first thing I realized about Jeff Tweedy: Musically, he remembers what is obvious.
After about five minutes, Jeff Tweedy found his stocking cap. We got into his car and started driving to the studio where Wilco makes music (we were listening to demos of the song "Hummingbird," if I recall, and the demos were--oddly--on cassette). We were waiting at a red light, and I asked him if there would ever be an Uncle Tupelo reunion. Surprisingly (and without much hesitation), he said maybe. This shocked me, because Tweedy hasn't really spoken with Jay Farrar in something like 10 years. This being the case, I asked him what would be the biggest hurdle in making this reunion a reality. He said something I had never anticipated: "I don't know if I could play those songs anymore," Tweedy said. "The bass parts on some of those songs are really fast. I don't think I can play bass that fast anymore." This, obviously, is crazy; this is like saying you're considering reuniting with your estranged wife after a 10-year separation, but you're really nervous that she might have rearranged the living room furniture. Yet--somehow--this sentiment struck me as remarkably insightful; it was the kind of highly important detail that normal people never consider when they expect artists to satisfy their dreams unconditionally. So this was the second thing I realized about Jeff Tweedy: Musically, he notices what is not so obvious.
Now, the core question (of course) is how those two realizations manifest themselves on Wilco records, a query which (probably) seems obvious to everyone who likes them and (I suspect) seems like bullshit logic to all people who don't. It's easier to start with the qualities that are obvious: The first track on A Ghost Is Born ("At Least That's What You Think") sounds like it could have been on Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, and I'm fairly certain this parallel is not accidental. The prettiest song ("Theologians") has a piano part that's kind of akin to Andrew Gold and a guitar solo that briefly reminds me of the one off Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years," and I'm fairly certain neither of those similarities were remotely conscious. Almost all of the lyrics on a A Ghost Is Born make me sad, even when there is no literal explanation as to why that should happen. And these are all extensions of the important things Tweedy seems to remember about songwriting: a) there is a reason why classic rock is referred to as "classic rock," b) creative people borrow as many ideas as uncreative people, and c) emotion is primarily a product of delivery (as opposed to content). These three qualities alone are enough to make me believe that this record is pretty good.
However, it's Wilco's grasp on the not too obvious that makes me love A Ghost Is Born, maybe because I know I'd never notice such things on my own. Though it's true that tracks like the 14-minute drone-o-rama "Less Than You Think" sound substantially more compelling if you're drunk and high and taking Ambien and sitting in a dark room and digesting tryptophan, it's also true that this experiment is not an example of weirdness for the sake of weirdness; this is weirdness for the sake of technological commentary. This is a reminder that musical instruments make sound even if no one is playing them, which is (arguably) the single biggest reason electrical rock 'n' roll is so different from jazz or country or bluegrass. If the marriage of voltage and metal and cable has its own autonomous existence, and if the prerogative of sound doesn't need a human component, the meaning of rock music changes--it becomes more complex, but less complicated. What this would mean is that what's truly inside music is Less Than You Think. And this is something that people like Jeff Tweedy need to notice; otherwise, people like me never would.
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