Throughout the packaging for Wilco's latest album, the title is listed so that it reads Wilco ≤ A Ghost Is Born. The equation suggests that the album itself takes precedence over the band. Fitting, because as it has continually made clear through its music, Wilco is a vehicle for its albums. It's as if LPs, for Wilco, are independent, pre-existing entities that wait for the band to channel them and give them form.
Arguably the most storied modern act to emerge from the alt.country movement, Wilco certainly isn't the only group to have found a fresh way to mix country, rock, and electronic ambience. But the six-piece breaks from the pack -- which includes fellow Chicagoans Califone, Wilco's revered direct ancestor Uncle Tupelo, and countless other vital artists -- because its style has transformed with each successive album. That progressive impulse was evident in the third album, Summerteeth, but nothing could have prepared listeners for 2001's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a quantum leap for the band. As with Radiohead's groundbreaking Kid A, YHF saw the band self-consciously push into unexplored territory. Arty and remote yet somehow accessible and warm, YHF redefined alt.country's parameters and simultaneously defied them, establishing Wilco as a band beyond categorization.
The innovative aspects of Ghost Is Born, YHF's follow-up, don't strike the ear as immediately, but a world of depth arises from repeated listening. Instead of YHF's eerie atmospherics, Ghost favors subtlety -- layer upon layer of it. The albumswells with skillfully blended, almost hidden elements, but there's so much quietly going on that, even with headphones or a great stereo, the album demands full attention.
Wilco is infamous for adding and dropping members like an impetuous freshman choosing classes, sometimes even in the midst of recording an album. On Ghost, Mikael Jorgensen joined after an initial round of touring for YHF. Multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach, who appears on the bulk of Ghost Is Born, departed before the album' s release, and guitarist Nels Cline and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone joined afterwards.
"I have to say," laughs bassist John Stirratt, "I always kinda had an objection about the whole revolving-door policy of the band -- until Leroy left. Once Leroy left, it was like, 'Okay well, yeah, this is officially a revolving door.' "
Stirratt is, in fact, the only other member of Wilco, besides founder Jeff Tweedy, who has been around since day one. While Tweedy has been known to defend Wilco's membership instability, Stirratt hasn't been as forgiving.
"Over the years, there had been enough of a core group to kind of keep it going, so there would be overlap from someone joining," he says before acknowledging the difficulty in making the necessary adjustments. Though he points to the arrivals of Jorgensen and drummer Glenn Kotche as positive cases where each had an immediately profound creative impact, Stirratt describes the band as primarily collaborative. Every time there's a change, a new rapport is needed.
"There's quite a bit of creative latitude," he explains, "which I think is pretty obscured by the fact that there have been so many personnel changes. It's been our cross to bear, and a little bit confusing to people." He also counters the perception of Tweedy as the band's unequivocal leader.
"Starting around 2000," he muses, "it became a little more like a consortium. It's become a really great place, a nice collaborative thing, a little bit more than the first few years of the band."
According to former second guitarist and engineer Jay Bennett -- who's gone on to a modestly successful solo career -- control issues played a fundamental role in his dismissal. "Relationships can get problematic," he says. Interestingly, Bennett has alleged since his departure that the band discussed firing Stirratt at one point.
Stirratt explains Leroy Bach's departure as a simple matter of Bach not wanting to get absorbed in another touring cycle. "Leroy's never been one that's motivated by money or any sort of quasi-fame," he says. "I think that's a compliment to him."
Still, Stirratt enthuses about Bach's contribution to the making of Ghost, which is chronicled in the recently released The Wilco Book ("It reads like a record," declares the back-cover text) and its accompanying outtakes CD Sound Recording. As Jorgensen's liner notes explain, the Ghost recording process consisted of several conceptually driven phases, where the band (at the time consisting of Stirratt, Bach, Tweedy, Kotche, and Jorgensen) was often more focused on developing rapport and experimenting than, as Kotche says in the book, "worry[ing] about making a record."
"At this point in my life," Tweedy explains in the text, "I value a lot of art that talks about itself." It's only fair to suggest, then -- especially with the $30 price tag -- that perhaps the book doesn't do enough talking. The quotes from band members illuminate how they approach their work, but readers will undoubtedly hunger for more, rather than the impressionistic graphic design that dominates the book. It's obvious that Wilco wants to open certain windows into its creative process, but there's still much left unsaid.
According to Stirratt, the band doesn't have much written for the next go, though a recording session is scheduled. More than anything, that casual approach is indicative of confidence with the current lineup. "We have a certain comfort about the ensemble that we didn't really have with the last record," Stirratt says.
Listeners know to expect the unexpected, and Stirratt himself is still in the dark. "I think we can even make a more live-sounding record this time," he says, then adds, "but it will depend on the material." For now, Wilco fans can savor the uncertainty, knowing that, as in the past, the album will take its own shape, arising from yet another version of the band that's made an art form out of remaining less than or equal to the sum of its parts.
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