According to "The Late Greats," Wilco's Jeff Tweedy finds the greatest rock and roll in the mute inglorious Miltonhood of those geniuses who never get signed, never play a show, never even let songs leave their mouths. By far the jauntiest thing on his band's latest album, A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch), "The Late Greats" comes off as something that might be a joke, maybe on the one-upmanship of the collector scum who make great claims whatever previously unknown thing comes down the pike. Or it could be an honest insistence that rock fans have to keep their eyes on the margins to get their fill of transcendence.
On the other hand, it may be a version of his own private rock ideal. Not that Wilco can ever really go back to the margins—this album debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard charts, and they've performed on The Late Show. But they can at least simulate the obscure by cultivating a kind of musical modernism that emphasizes the wholly abstract and private, as they've done here and in their last album, 2002's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. So we get lots of lyrical tropes that drift by just as vaguely as the echoes and murmurs in the corners of the band's sound, only audible through headphones: "A random painted highway/And a muzzle of bees." "Less Than You Think," after exploring the wan irony of its title with delicate piano and vocals, gets capped with a question mark in the shape of a nine-minute drone that sounds like an air conditioner on the fritz. (Which isn't to say it's bad, though it is corny.) Tweedy boasts that theologians don't know nothin' 'bout his soul, and my God, if theologians can't know, what hope is there for us?
Yeah, yeah—that lyric could be a crack at rock critics, or, what amounts to the same difference in context, Those Who Kill Art by Thinking About Everything Too Much. On the other hand, maybe Tweedy's a theologian, too. The overintellectualization of stuff can be fabulous if it's fecund—a flurry of thoughts that leaves its audience to pick up all the pieces and draw their own conclusions. When it's a form of endless second-guessing, you might, weary from working overtime trying to anticipate the thoughts of others, come to believe all choices are equally futile and retreat into silence because it's easier. If there's any way to admire A Ghost Is Born, it's to read it as a dramatization of that kind of paralysis.
Jeff Tweedy likes to portray this deep personal agony by choosing not to project his voice. (Oh, and play his guitar, too.) The emotional jujitsu of attaining maximum emotional effect by restraining much of what usually makes a singer's voice expressive has been part of rock's outliers since Lou Reed. It's evolved into what might be the chief annoyance in indie rock, tainting just about everyone, Wilco included, but on A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy's tarry drawl is sometimes what provides the album's greatest hooks, like the arcing way he sings "uptown" and "downtown" to the beat in "Handshake Drugs." Sometimes, especially on the quieter numbers, the way his voice recedes behind the music is practically the only interesting thing a song's got.
"Spiders (Kidsmoke)" does this, too, pairing off this vocal nullity with a motorik rhythm so antiseptic (and so old-fashioned—Madonna beat Wilco to motorik by six years!) that every time the song abruptly shifts to power-chord stomp, it feels only like a barely perceptible uptick in momentum. Even after you notice the rest of the song's dynamics, like how Tweedy's guitar nags along before the Van Halen–y bits, it doesn't remove the sense of detachment. The effect is like watching a car accident, in that you only sense something's happened well after the fact. The words, suggestive of social connections being made and stymied, heighten the displacement. He sings, "It's good to be alone," throughout; near the end, Tweedy croaks, "There's no blood on my hands/I just do as I am told," with such blankness it's as if his soul just shrank several feet.
This miserablism gets obnoxious when he's resentful, shaking his fists at figures he doesn't want to give shape to but that, if you're inclined, could be identified as ex-bandmates, rock critics, "the industry," and so on. It's a coarse self-pity that even flirts with the language of the suicide threat: "Where I'm going, you cannot come. . . . A ghost is born." (Death is the ultimate in secret knowledge.) At best, though—at its most shattered—the album feels like the aftermath of a rude shock, a portrayal of the pain that forces people into numbness and silence.
Wilco play the Paramount Theatre at 8 p.m. Wed., Nov. 10. $25–$30.