Album Review: Wilco - Star Wars

Album Reviews
07/22/2015
Gerrit Feenstra

What's better than a surprise free album from one of your all time favorite bands? A surprise free album from one of your favorite bands that puts them at the top of their two decades and running game. Wilco wrapped up their contract with Nonesuch back in 2010, after their fourth release on the label, Wilco (The Album). Forming their own dBpm Records, they returned quickly to the scene with The Whole Love, an album that broke from the formalities of their Nonesuch arc and started a (wait for it) wholly new chapter. It's been a few years of waiting (and listening to Jeff Tweedy's Sukierae record made with son Spencer) to see how another self-produced, self-released record would pan out for the band, but now, Star Wars is in our hands/ears and holy smokes was it worth the wait. Tweedy and company continue phase 3 of the Wilco story with a wonderfully playful and assertive burst of rock magic. Go download Star Wars here, right now, and tell your friends to do the same. We can all talk about it afterwards.

Wilco begin their ninth studio record with a minute and sixteen seconds of blistering noise rock called "EKG", taking its name from the shorthand for an electrocardiogram (saved you a Google search). The track paces like one too - it's dischordant half tones balking up the fret board with reckless abandon before the album's first proper arrangement kicks off in the form of "More...". At 2:44, "More..." still sits shorter than any record on The Whole Love by a long shot. Furthermore, the fuzzed out lead guitar is even more abrasive than your first listen of "The Art of Almost". The chorus begs for, "more, more than he has, more than there is, more than exists", before returning to more blistering guitar solos and lurching arrangements. The track fades into a staticky mess before it even begins, launching listeners forward into the more straightforward fuzz groove of "Random Name Generator". Here, Wilco fans might find themselves in more familiar territory. The 4 by 4 groove is steady and steadfast, with Tweedy making ridiculous claims over top about constellations in the sky and the title's aforementioned web algorithms, trying on different identities and trying for feeling at every turn. "The Joke Explained" takes a whimsical, jerky alt-country turn for a brief moment of embarrassment and humility due to an inside joke before the album's most complex and brilliant track, "You Satellite", takes over. The five minute burner pushes for intimacy is an ever changing world, with companionship embodying an astral projection.

Yes, the Star Wars of the title does truly take its name from some spacey lyrics on the part of Jeff Tweedy, but the battles aren't what take the forefront. No, on Star Wars, the confidence of The Whole Love fades into a strobe-lit frenzy. On the chaotic first half of the record, we have heart rate monitors, random name generators, satellites... in a word, excess. And what to do with it all? I think that's what Tweedy and the gang are tackling this time around: the weirdness of modern romance and identity in a post-Internet world (hence the cover - seriously, what is more Internet than cats?).

After side A's exposition, side B turns to development and explanation. "I was only asking for a moment of the truth", Tweedy sings on "Taste The Ceiling". It's a cool alt-country track that finds the singer at the place we've probably grown most comfortable seeing him - on the outside looking in, on the ceiling looking down, always on the opposite side of a winning battle. "Taste The Ceiling" is the album's one reprieve - it's a song you could listen to a thousand times in a row and not every grow tired of.

"Pickled Ginger" picks the sonic plot of Star Wars up again. The heavy-handed fuzz rock of the guitar line is complimented carefully by Tweedy for a full minute before drums and lead guitar double over to form a scorcher of a track in the great experimental pop tradition of "I'm A Wheel" and the like. Lyrically, the track describes a directionless plane of life without conviction or contention. It's the kind of track that only Wilco could turn into a masterpiece. The song ends far before I wish it did, but boy does it do wonders in its two and a half minutes. "Where Do I Begin" returns to cool, Americana familiarity once more for a doubt of character. "We're so alone, we're never alone, forever in debt to the stomach I get. When things can't be known, our paths overgrown - from where we end to 'where do I begin?'." There's a whole wasteland of communicative error out there that we have only begun to grasp as a society. We've heard plenty a communication breakdown song from Wilco in the past, but here, in the context of Star Wars' first half, it seems revitalized. It's a whole new love of distraction.

"Cold Slope" and "King of You" form the grooviest twosome on the record. The guitar arrangements on "Cold Slope" are trying to break your heart, and they succeed. "You can say what you want", Tweedy snarls, "but you don't know what you want". He questions sincerity, fulfillment, and the concept of long-term recognition. Then, as the track fades, "King of You" takes the same riff and goes full Zeppelin, putting goosebumps on your arms and blisters on your fingers. Why the band didn't just slap these two together as a six minute plus burner, who knows? But "King of You" continues the themes of "Cold Slope" into deeper accusatory territory. Every man is an island, but in the sewing hands of Jeff Tweedy, the emperor's new clothes are looking pretty stark. All of this questioning, from side A to side B, just points to one thing: true relationship requires honesty. It's this honesty that Tweedy zeroes in on with album closer "Magnetized". Love is simpler than we make it out to be if we are honest with ourselves and with others, and it's this simplicity that draws us together. No star wars or satellites needed - just two poles and a current running from one to the other.

Star Wars isn't the new era introductory opus that The Whole Love claims to be by any means, nor does it want to be. Wilco are enjoying their freedom from a label - when you listen to Star Wars, you can tell. There are singles here, but they come naturally, without a sale point. There is extreme synergy, but an urgency reflective of the times takes precedent. As the world continues to turn, making sweeping ultimatums about the new face of the music industry, with conversations about streaming services, royalties, and all the other minutiae, Wilco continue fighting the good fight with open hands. Here, they present Star Wars, a free gift that doesn't settle for any sort of half-truths. No, this ninth LP by Wilco is a full package deal - one worth talking about for weeks on weeks. Grab Star Wars, share it with your friends, and have faith that the old guard still have plenty a lesson to teach the new one. Wilco still loves you baby, and if you want to learn something about them and about yourself, you'd best love them back.

Download Star Wars from Wilco's website for free while you can! You can pre-order the CD and vinyl versions of the album here (CD is out August 21, vinyl is out November 27), along with an incredible dream print of the album art, which seems to go along with the theme of the record pretty damn well. Wilco kicked off a North American tour with a headlining spot at Pitchfork Music Festival, where they played Star Wars in its entirety. They will hit Seattle on August 11 playing at Marymoor Park, with support from the fantabulous Jenny Lewis. Grab tickets here.

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