A small beach ball landed at the feet of Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy early in Thursday’s set. Whoever tossed it had written a message regarding the band’s 10th anniversary, which Tweedy acknowledged and then contradicted: It feels like the band is only eight months old. Considering the cementing of the current lineup and having released their first album made completely on the Nonesuch label’s watch, he’s correct; considering the density and aggressiveness of the music they’re playing these days, they’re miles beyond their Midwest country-rock roots that earned them initial fame.
The sonic experiments of “Yankee Foxtrot Hotel,” the celebrated album that got them booted from Warner Bros., have become a full-fledged modus operandi on “A Ghost Is Born,” an album that will probably be popping up on a fair number of year-end best-of lists. On each of the 23 songs performed Thursday — the vast majority are found on their last two albums — there was a depth and assuredness in the playing, a commitment to sure-fire forcefulness. “A Ghost Is Born” is an enormous leap from the brilliant “Summerteeth,” released five years ago; it’s as broad a leap as Dylan took with “Highway 61 Revisited,” recorded three years after “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”
Much as the band has taken shape, owing greatly to the dynamic and arresting guitar playing and manipulations by Nels Cline, there is no one individual song on the new album that matches up with Tweedy’s best. Tweedy continues to write about relationships going sour, drugs and relationships that have a chance with less of the travelogue that informed Wilco’s earlier work. The grind of the guitar has its excessive moments, but those are fleeting; Cline has worked in the avant-garde fringes of rock, pop and jazz and has not only a feel for what might work — a Glenn Branca churn, a blues lick, a riff that hasn’t been heard from anyone since the Brit art-rock Canterbury scene died in the mid-’70s — and places them with expertise against the trad Wilco sound of piano, organ and Tweedy’s acoustic guitar.
Enhancing the experimental nature of the evening was a series of films, mostly black-and-white, of animals and buildings beamed onto a large screen behind the band. Beyond a scene of bees for “Muzzle of Bees,” which opened the show, the films provided a bit of esoterica rather than aligning perfectly with the subject matter. As the best edition of Wilco yet, they are more an amalgamation of 20th century visual artists — Ed Ruscha, Jackson Pollock and Norman Rockwell — than they are the reflection of a sonic forefather. That’s tough to achieve.
Wilco will perform New Year’s Eve with Flaming Lips and Sleater-Kinney at Madison Square Garden.