Like so many of the songs on Wilco's new album, "a ghost is born," the opening track begins gently, tunefully, with a strummed guitar and warm piano and the band leader Jeff Tweedy singing hesitantly, almost sheepishly. "When I sat down on the bed next to you/ You started to cry/ I said maybe if I leave you'll want me to come back home/ Or maybe all you mean is leave me alone/ At least that's what you said." Then, in a shape-shifting jolt that quickly becomes this album's signature, Tweedy stops singing and starts saying what he really feels -- in a bristling, spastic, majestically wigged-out guitar solo that cannot be mistaken for anything other than the sound of someone coming completely and utterly unglued.
A ghost is born when somebody dies, and Wilco's fifth album is the work of a man and a band enchanted with the idea of disappearing, or at least disintegrating into an unrecognizable form. "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" takes 10 minutes to morph from droning Krautrock to frantic rave-up to a diseased compound of the two. If sound can be harmful to your health, this one is.
The fragile ballad "Less Than You Think" concludes with 12 minutes of feedback, a sonic wall of emptiness that evolves so slowly and painstakingly from a hum to a blast that most listeners will just give up on the song. And that's a risk that surely isn't lost on its creator. Shortly after finishing the album, Tweedy entered rehab to deal with an addiction to painkillers, prescribed to treat migraine headaches aggravated by panic disorder. His is the sort of physical and mental discomfort that makes a person want to hack things to bits or jump out a window or head for the hills, or possibly all three all at once.
Being a man of uncommon musical gifts, Tweedy shapes his chaos like an architect. Sometimes it sparkles: "Muzzle of Bees" is a sweet, confused ramble, and "Hummingbird" is a spry pop tune, honeyed with harmonies and strings, about wanting to forget but not wanting to be forgotten. On "Company in My Back" Tweedy neutralizes his unsettling urges -- "I will always die so you can remember me" -- in the familiar guise of country lope. Other times Tweedy goes for the direct approach: "I'm a wheel/ I will turn on you" he cackles in a self-loathing falsetto on the album's lone rocker. But he seems to get the most gratification -- it's catharsis, pure and simple -- turning the sonic pleasantries inside out. Tweedy's always reveled in cracking songs down the middle to expose their dark guts. Here, with the help of co-producer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist Jim O'Rourke, Wilco essentially dismantles itself, and the effect is thrilling and alienating. Think of it like a difficult friend whose rare intelligence comes with a proportional dose of trouble.
Two years ago Wilco became the poster child for artistic integrity when the band's former label, Reprise, refused to release "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," a murky, ambient alt-country album that was picked up by Nonesuch and became the group's breakthrough work. Where "Foxtrot" was a dense, surreal mural of a falling-apart world, "a ghost is born" is a visceral, twisted self-portrait. It isn't another genre-busting masterwork. But the new album is a brave, audacious, and often lovely collection that further cements Wilco's reputation as an authentically restless and endlessly inventive American band.