Album review: Wilco, Star Wars
Chicago-based Wilco just released a free-to-download album. Adrian Pedić gives his opinion:
There’s a lot to be said about Wilco releasing a new album completely out of the blue, with a novel name and matching album artwork. The irreverence could be easily interpreted as a marketing stunt, but anybody that’s familiar with Wilco will know that at this point in their career, they have no need for such gimmicks.
Instead, the irreverence is simply an illustration of their songwriting and production choices on their new album, which veers wildly and swiftly away from the careful so-called ‘dad-rock’ (a terrible phrase) that they had been cultivating since the release of Sky Blue Sky in 2005. While across that and the following two albums, Wilco progressively moved away from the mellower sound, Star Wars is such a departure that it could have only come from the mind of a master songwriter such as Jeff Tweedy, armed with arguably the greatest musicians of any current line-up. The result is a lean and loud affair, where Tweedy drives a firm wedge between ‘pop’ and ‘accessible’. While every Wilco album is an intensely self-contained affair that seems to reflect Tweedy’s intent at the time, Star Wars makes a self-aware decision to embrace Tweedy’s eclecticism, and his intent here is ironically more focused than it has been in a while.
“EKG” opens the album with a misunderstanding; the instrumental track, while providing some great interplay between lead guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche, is an awkward and uncomfortable opening to an album that contrasts this by passing with great ease. While jarring, it’s the punchline before the joke, in that it’s speaks for Star Wars as a whole.
Speaking of Glenn Kotche, not since his debut on 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has he been in such fine form. Listening to his drumming across the whole album, but especially on highlights “Random Name Generator” and “Pickled Ginger”, it gives the impression that he’s been holding back for the last few albums; likewise for Nels Cline, for whom the fuzzy soundscape proves a smart move- rather than having the space for an extended solo or jam, he works his way through every song, contributing to the frenzied and chaotic sound of an album that is a masterpiece of precise instrumentation and restraint.
“You Satellite” could just be Wilco’s new masterpiece, which features such a subtle build-up and progression through it’s five minutes, that the journey from a typically elliptical Tweedy tune to a beautifully expressive wall of sound is impossible to chart. While this provides a clear high point, there’s really not a bad song in sight, not even a misstep. “More” opens the album in a more fitting manner than the actual opener, and primes the audience for what’s to come. “The Joke Explained” is a wonderful instance of straight-faced humour that works wonderfully well with Tweedy’s droll delivery and the equally lackadaisical music. “Taste the Ceiling” and “Where Do I Begin” provide a nice change of pace and allow Tweedy to insert some emotional backbone into the album. “Cold Slope” and “King Of You” seems like two halves of the same idea, yet provide two of the album’s most heavy and rewarding moments- or as heavy as Wilco are ever going to sound, anyway.
Closer “Magnetized” is another standout, which closes Star Wars out in an appropriately ambitious manner; from the magnet strip keyboards in the opening to the soaring guitars in the chorus, to some refreshingly straight romantic sentiments from Jeff Tweedy, it sees the band accomplishing in a little under four minutes what would have once stretched beyond six, as a minimum.
Star Wars has come at a perfect time. Jeff Tweedy isolated the prime motivating factor behind the album’s sudden release as “it felt like it would be fun”, and indeed Wilco haven’t been this much fun to listen to in almost a decade. While their previous work stands on it’s own merits, Star Wars is just so deceptively simple that it’s impossible not to enjoy it. It might just be the Wilco album that everybody deserves to hear, if not for any other reason than for how much fun it is. For fans, it might be divisive, but when Jeff Tweedy sings “I kinda like it when I make you cry/ a miracle every once in a while” on “Random Name Generator”, you know that he’s doing it with a grin on his face. Six years after the release of Wilco (The Album), they finally live up to the promise they made: “Wilco will love you, baby.”
You can download the album here for free for a limited time
Review by Adrian Pedić.