Though they’d already established alt-country flagship status by their second album, 1996’s Being There, Wilco’s explosive creative transformation just six years later, exhibited on their 2002 masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, would make the band a hip-households name synonymous with artistic exploration and change. Yankee Hotel is a shimmering, sometimes haunted, genre-defying record that propelled the band — not to mention listeners — into uncharted areas of texture, tone and atmosphere.
Last spring, Wilco followed up with A Ghost is Born (Nonesuch Records), which at first appears more skeletal but ultimately reveals itself to be no less layered than its predecessor. Where Yankee Hotel is heavy on sound effects and unconventional mixing techniques, Ghost is Born relies on the listener’s patience to discover the full depth in its arrangements. In fact, many aspects of the music are presented with such a light, subtle touch that even closer inspection with headphones won’t necessarily convey the full picture any faster or easier. One simply needs to sit there, take it all in, and digest this music over time.
Later last year, the band released The Wilco Book, an oversized, hard-bound volume which contains essays, interviews, experimental artwork and design, and also comes with Sound Recording, a CD of outtakes and works-in-progress from the making of Ghost is Born that you can only get with the book.
The book and CD together do open windows into Wilco’s very involved creative process, but listeners should be aware that both will probably leave you wanting more — especially considering the $30 price tag. Some of the CD’s tracks play out in less time than it takes to read their accompanying liner notes (a double disc would have been nice), and the book, for all its length, is overall a little thin on text, information, photos, and substance.
“At this point,” band leader Jeff Tweedy explains in the book, “I value a lot of art that talks about itself.”
Then again, by now, perhaps some things are better left unsaid. After the film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart took audiences directly into the making of Yankee Hotel and the much-publicized record-company conflict that ensued when the band turned in the master tapes, music magazines went into overdrive mode — which only flared higher when, before Ghost came out, Tweedy checked himself into a rehab facility to combat an addiction to painkillers he says he took to relieve anxiety.
Nonetheless, Wilco recovered gracefully. Bassist John Stirratt took the situation as an opportunity to reflect on mental health.
“The fact that he’d wrestled with it made me aware of it for a long time before that,” Stirratt says. “I think everyone knows someone or has someone in their family that wrestles with mental illness. It’s just so common. I don’t think I necessarily became more aware when he got help for it. … I mean, I’ve had family members 12-stepping and things like that.
“When Jeff went into rehab,” he continues, “I did talk to a lot of my recovering friends. I’d seen him wrestle with it for a while, and a lot of other friends. Jeff’s had certain problems over the years. I knew him when he was drinking, years and years ago. He realized that that was going to be a big problem, an impediment for him to realize a lot of his goals — professionally, personally, everything. So he was able to totally quit by himself.
“I was amazed that he was able to do that, because he was an alcoholic — and maybe the other people that I’ve known had to 12-step or something like that and it wasn’t that easy for them. I think he had a certain confidence about that, about being able to stop. And that, unfortunately, fostered the addiction to painkillers over the years. You’re able to function over the period of time with a person and maybe not notice that they’re having a hard time. When you’re used to them struggling a lot, you’re not quite really sure why or what is it, you know?”
So how does Stirratt feel about having to watch someone struggle?
“God,” he answers, “I’ve known people on heroin or in seriously awful situations. Ultimately, someone has to do it for themselves. It’s hard to not be able to help people.”
In the end, though, Stirratt feels that the interruption in Wilco’s schedule afforded the latest band lineup the extra time it needed to gel.
“Having that time,” he says, “and not having to play [the] Coachella [Music Festival], was a blessing for the band. We were able to really sit down and take our time and learn the new record and learn the catalogue, assign parts and really work out the Yankee Hotel material.
“Coachella would’ve been our third or fourth gig. It was a good call not to [do it]. Things seemed really dim at that point, but things bounced back in a really great way. It was great to let Jeff not get on the road at what would obviously have been a disastrous point.”
Throughout its history, the band has undergone a dizzying flurry of personnel changes, with the lineup going from (get this) four to five to four to five to four to five to, most recently, six members.
Unlike Tweedy, Stirratt (Wilco’s only other remaining founding member) doesn’t defend the band’s membership instability so readily.
“I have to say,” Stirratt says with a laugh, “I always kinda had an objection about the whole revolving-door policy of the band … it’s been our cross to bear.” Well, one of them.
[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]
Wilco plays Thomas Wolfe Auditorium at 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14. $28. 259-5544.