“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” took a while to grow on me, but it obviously won me over. “A Ghost Is Born” never really has. I’ve come to appreciate it more than I did originally, but that’s more from hearing these songs live than anything the actual CD accomplished on its own merits.
The album’s a mess. The better tracks have little energy: Off the top of my head, I still can’t hum the melodies to “Hell Is Chrome,” “Muzzle of Bees,” “Hummingbird,” or “Wishful Thinking.” “Kicking Television” proved these songs all worthwhile, but on this disc they’re pounded into sonic obscurity by claustrophobic production to the point where they barely register.
Meanwhile, the songs that do have a musical pulse unfortunately feature some of Jeff Tweedy’s worst-ever lyrics. “I was chewing gum …” starts the overlong “Handshake Drugs” (and has there been a worse outro guitar “solo” on a Wilco record than the one that emanates out the back end of this track?); “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 …” drones “I’m A Wheel”; “Theologians don’t know nothin’ about my soul …” opines “Theologians”—over and over and over again; and I’ve always had a hard time telling whether “The Late Greats” is supposed to be a joke or not, and, if so, on whom. “At Least That’s What You Said” features a great riff, but the 2 minutes of tepid barely-audible melancholy you have to sulk through to get to it are almost not worth enduring; this song wants to be “Misunderstood” and falls way short.
And then there are the two albatrosses that weigh down their respective sides of the album: “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “Less Than You Think,” both excessive studio filler in their own unique and painful ways.
The hands-down best song on “A Ghost Is Born” is “Company in My Back,” which holds its own against the Wilco catalog with twinkling grace. Everything else on this album with potential for redemption had the life sucked out of it in the studio.
Favorite Track: “Company in My Back”
Least Favorite Track: “Less Than You Think”