I keep forgetting to mention this.
As anyone who knows me is aware, I am a huge comic book fan, especially when it comes to independent, super-hero-free comics. I wasn’t always that way – oh, I have loved comics since I was a pup, but when I first began collecting them seriously, it was Spider-Man and the Punisher and Youngblood. It was capes and biceps and masks and pronouncements like, “Your villainous plan will never come to fruition, evil one!”
And then I met Rick Lowell, owner of Casablanca Comics in Maine. When I first started buying comics from his store in 1992, I asked Rick what books he read and thought I might enjoy. He said one word – Bone. And I laughed at him, if I recall, like a jackass. But I eventually read Bone, one of the first black-and-white, self-published comics I had ever seen, and I adored it. Creator/writer/artist Jeff Smith employed a clean line and cartoony style to tell a modern fairy tale reminiscent of both the Brothers Grimm and Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and it was touching and funny and heartfelt.
I still buy comics from Casablanca – they ship them to me in Maryland in a big box once a month. This month, I bought the final issue of Bone, number 55. Jeff Smith has brought his epic to a grand-scale conclusion, told the story he wanted to tell, and gone out on his own terms, and since I love it when that happens, I wanted to offer him my congratulations. It’s been a fun ride, even when it dipped into darker places than I expected, and the quality never suffered over 55 swell issues. So congrats, Jeff, and thanks.
And I have bought all 55 issues of Bone from Casablanca, which just puts my age in perspective. But it also tells me how satisfied I have been with their service, and what an amazing comic book store they run up there. In the ensuing 12 years since I laughed at Rick for liking a book named Bone, I have lived in four different states along the east coast, and I haven’t found a store like Casablanca anywhere. I plan to keep buying these pen-and-ink fantasies well into my doddering old age, and I hope to keep buying them from Casablanca until I’m feeble and blind and can no longer read. They’re on the web – check them out here
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Believe it or not, I really don’t purposefully try to disagree with people. It just happens that way more often than not.
I don’t mean just the popular opinions, either. I’m okay with swimming against the tide of Britney fans and New Found Glory freaks, and it doesn’t bother me that I hate 50 Cent and Usher and just about anyone you can think of who has been on TRL. Really, I’ve been disagreeing with the general public on a regular basis for so long that I’m used to it.
It’s the critical opinions, however, that get me, especially critics whose perspectives I ordinarily respect. When the music press decides, en masse, to embrace an album I despise or slam a record I love, I can’t help but think that maybe it’s me. It’s especially galling when it’s an artist whose work I have followed and admired for some time. I feel like maybe I’m getting off the ride too early, and that maybe there’s just something I’m missing.
A good case in point is the new Wilco album, A Ghost is Born. I have enjoyed every Wilco album to this point, each more than the last, like most of the critical community. This is especially satisfying to me since Wilco has undergone a near-complete metamorphosis each time out, a trait that seems to alienate the average reviewer. The country-rock twang of A.M. gave way to the epic rock of Being There, the kaleidoscopic pop of Summerteeth and the ambient noise-folk of 2002’s masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and acclaim has attended each step on this strange road. And I have agreed with pretty much all of it.
But here’s where that story ends, much to my dismay. Unlike a lot of folks who write about music for a living, I hate being disappointed in anything, even though it sometimes leads to pithy wordplay here in the column. And I hate this feeling I have now, this sense of not being able to join in the fun. Because you see, most every review I have read of A Ghost is Born has been glowing, full of praise for lead Wilco-er Jeff Tweedy for taking his band in yet another superb direction. It’s a party I’m not invited to, apparently, but I can’t just go along in order to feel included.
A Ghost is Born is really quite terrible.
In my humble opinion, of course.
If anyone is still wondering just how much Tweedy needed his departed co-writer, Jay Bennett, well, wonder no more. A Ghost is Born is hushed and scrappy, and often captures the same mood as moments of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but there’s very little substance beneath the atmosphere. The album lasts 67 minutes, and Tweedy has enough material here to fill maybe 25 minutes of that with well-crafted songs. The rest he seems to have made up on the fly, or thrown together out of C-grade bits, and only the production genius of Jim O’Rourke (who did YHF) manages to occasionally hold it together. The songs themselves are sprawling, simplistic messes.
We can start with the good stuff, if you like. The best song on A Ghost is Born is called “Hummingbird.” It’s three minutes of Beatlesque, melodic joy, and it’s the only one here that’s up to the standard set by Tweedy and Bennett as a songwriting team. There’s a stretch of songs from the wistful “Wishful Thinking” to the rough-and-tumble “I’m a Wheel” that is also pretty good, but not great. The web of guitars and dulcimers on “Company in My Back” is a particular highlight, although the song is weak, and “Theologians” brings an enjoyable gallop to the last half of the record. “Muzzle of Bees” is worthy, as well, with its melancholy lope. Even the guitar solo works in that one.
But that’s it. The rest is something Wilco has never been before – godawful boring. And it comes most often from Tweedy’s tendency to stretch tiny ideas to their breaking points. Opener “At Least That’s What You Said” is a sweet, easy piano piece saddled with a two-and-a-half-minute flailing guitar solo that seems annoyingly random. That’s nothing compared to “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” which keeps the flailing guitar, subtracts any melody at all, sprinkles in a lazy, repetitive drum machine beat and keeps…on…going…and…going for nearly 11 damn minutes.
Those scanning the lyrics for signs of Tweedy’s well-publicized struggle with addiction will be rewarded with “Handshake Drugs,” full of references to discreet taxicabs and downtown deals. It’s far more rewarding to read those lyrics than to listen to the song they accompany, a six-minute slog that ends three minutes too late. Atop the boring music is Tweedy’s always-bored voice, which only drags much of this material down. Often, in the past, his voice would stand in contrast to the sly melodies present on every Wilco disc. You know, except this one.
I must confess here that I am not one of those people who hears overused chord progressions and thinks that they represent a classic sound. I hear one-five or one-four-five or one-four-one-five and think that the songwriting is lazy. In the past, Wilco has employed these progressions, but they’ve always twisted them up a little bit, expanding on their wide Americana foundation. Here there is nothing as invigorating as “Monday,” nothing as touching as “She’s a Jar,” nothing as flat-out thrilling as “Jesus, Etc,” except for “Hummingbird.”
As boring as much of the album is, it’s nothing when compared with the much-discussed “Less Than You Think.” Here Tweedy and O’Rourke ruin what could have been a decent three-minute piano interlude by appending 12 minutes of formless noise. That’s right, 12 minutes. Now, I have plenty of CDs that prove that it’s possible to make a 12-minute noise sculpture that is captivating. This is not one of those. This is endless, monotonous garbage. This is something that talentless artists put on their records to seem avant-garde.
But Tweedy is not talentless, and that’s the tragedy of A Ghost is Born. For more than half of this record’s running time, he’s come up empty, but rather than admit that and release a 30-minute EP, he’s bloated the album and infused it with a sense of self-importance. Whether or not Tweedy actually thinks A Ghost is Born is a great record, he’s worked overtime to convince any and all comers that he believes it is, perhaps hoping that they’ll be hoodwinked by the self-conscious artfulness oozing from the seams here.
In essence, if Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was Wilco’s OK Computer, then this is their Kid A, and given that, it could have been a lot worse. Still, this meandering mess is thus far the year’s biggest disappointment, a turd that’s been polished up, gold-plated and hung in the Louvre, and the dutiful art-zombies are lining up to hail it a masterpiece. I wish I could join them. It would be wonderful if I could hear what most of the country’s critics are hearing on this album. I would love to love it. But I fear that this is my exit, and I’m getting off this bus and walking home.
Next week, the Cure.
See you in line Tuesday morning.