Album Review: Wilco, ‘Star Wars’
Wilco were pretty much baiting the entire internet with the release of their latest album, Star Wars. For one, it’s called Star Wars. Second, it has a kitschy painting of a cat on the cover. And lastly, they released it just slightly past work hours on a Thursday without notice.
Oh, and it was free.
If the internet loves anything, it loves nostalgia-driven resurrections of beloved pop culture institutions; it loves anything to do with cats; it loves the shock of surprise album drops; it loves immediately responding to said shock with witty, 140-character quips; and it definitely loves not paying for things. And those who find themselves thinking, “But I hate all of those things” -- their manufactured outrage is merely the other side of the same coin.
But other than a handful of song titles that seem to reflect the so-called stuff of the internet (“More…”, “Random Name Generator”), Wilco’s ninth full-length effort doesn’t spend a whole lot of time dwelling on the culture that allowed for its unconventional release.
In the opening moments of Star Wars, sure, it could be interpreted that Jeff Tweedy and company are well aware of the state of affairs. For every listener who, in a kneejerk fashion, downloaded the album and quickly pressed play, the minute-long opener, “EKG” -- a jarring and squealing instrumental -- serves as a wake-up call. “More…” follows, and it could still be speaking to those same listeners when Tweedy, amidst a bed of gruff guitar riffs, announces, “More that I have / More than I can give / More that I have / More than there is,” before descending into a wave of noise.
Otherwise, the only thing Thursday’s surprise release of Star Wars shares in common with the album's content is its irreverence. At 33 minutes long, Wilco balance their mastery over pleasant melodies with their predilection for forays in the unexpected and experimental -- something the band had triumphantly returned to on 2011’s The Whole Love.
“Random Name Generator” wages on with the same ferocity as “More…” Tweedy’s vocals -- which confess, “I kinda like it when I make you cry every once in a while” -- are just slightly buried beneath it all, and there they stay, by and large, for the duration of Star Wars. “You Satellite” sits at the center of the album as the longest track of the set, clocking in at just over five minutes. It’s a slow-building, psychedelic cut that reaches frenetic peaks before peacefully pulling back, which is an equation Wilco have expertly executed over the course of their 20-year catalog.
“Taste the Ceiling” leans on the band’s sunnier melodies while Tweedy makes simple, but potent realizations (“Why do I forgive you / Because I get confused”), effectively offsetting tracks like “Pickled Ginger,” “Cold Slope” and “King of You,” which chug along and latch on to their rock-driven grooves.
Both “Where Do I Begin” and album closer, “Magnetized,” recall the Beatles, while the former contemplates the blurry and intertwined lines of close relationships. Tweedy may be specifically addressing his own with his wife, Susan, whose battle with cancer was also the predominant subject matter heard on Sukierae, Tweedy’s album with their son, Spencer, which was released under their surname last year. On "Where Do I Begin," Tweedy grapples with a crippling lack of control: “Why can’t I say something to make you well?”
If “Where Do I Begin” is mournful, “Magnetized” ends things on a brighter note. As Tweedy writes off just about everyone else on the blissful, sweeping ballad, he offers up a sweet profession to his subject: “I realize we’re magnetized.”
While Star Wars may not comment on the music industry landscape that paved the way for the album as much as its release might suggest, it’s a commendable addition to the band’s 20-year career in indie-rock innovation.