Do you remember about ten or twelve years ago when dudes were going around saying things like “Oh man, you gotta get Yankee Hotel Foxtrot it is so good, it will change your life!” or “Wilco is really the only mainstream American band that matters bro”? Well If you knew me back in those days, I was one of those dudes. Still today I stand behind most of those statements, especially about Wilco. Even though they are still one of my favorite bands, and released some of my all time favorite albums, I’m not a deaf fanboy who worships every single thing they have put out over the years. I’m also humble enough to admit that with each album after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, they have gotten somewhat predictable and less interesting. That’s not to say they’ve released bad albums, I mean to me, a bad Wilco record is better than the best corporate mainstream album that’s the flavor of the week., but after a while their albums seem to find themselves in this strange “Wilco being Wilco” territory. A place where it sounds as if you are listening to a band slowly become a parody of themselves.
Now it’s 2015 and it’s been the longest space between Wilco releases. 2011’s The Whole Love proved to the world they could have a universally acclaimed record on their own label, and even earned a Grammy nomination in the process. Jeff Tweedy is not only an amazing songwriter and producer, but also a force to be reckoned with when it comes to industry confidence and artist integrity. It was a fantastic album, but maybe just a bit too safe for me. After a few years break, it made me wonder if the band was actually spent. Would the next record be as safe? Is Wilco “Dad Rock”? When will the next record be released? Will there be a next record? All these questions swirled in my head, even more so when Tweedy released a solo record and supporting tour. Then out of nowhere comes Star Wars.
Releasing previously unannounced albums has become some sort of a trend within the past few years, most notably Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album. U2 upped the ante by releasing a previously unannounced record and pretty much forcing it upon everyone who owns an iPhone or iPod by cramming it on anyone’s device that synced with iTunes, whether they wanted it or not. The controversy of an unwanted album was far more interesting than the album itself but I digress. The trend was born and in full swing.
The music industry is in a very strange place these days to say the least. I could turn this entire article into one about the subject of the sad state of the business, or how labels are irrelevant, or how streaming services are pick-pocketing artists, but in fear of sounding redundant or a grumpy ol’ physical purist, I’ll just say that regardless of where you stand on the subject, free music is free music. Wilco became innovators in the way of releasing music since their very own tangled episode with their former label Reprise. Tweedy has went on the record in saying that he thought it would be fun to release a surprise album for free as some sort of gift to the fans, so who can argue with that!? If the streaming services are basically making every record ready available on demand for pennies on the dollar, why not go a step further and give the album away?
Star Wars with it’s lawsuit baiting title and dubious feline album cover, is a strange gift to be given but a gift none the less. The opening track “EKG” sounding like Sonic Youth doing the South Park theme, signifies a step back from the nearly cliché Americana alt-country Wilco has been touting since the early 2000s, with more emphasis on experimentation, but not so much where it sounds too ambitious. Songs feature wobbly, digital stretching, distorted chorus heavy guitars, jangly acoustic layers beneath dirty bass grooves and all the poetically vague lyrics Tweedy has been known for. Songs like “Random Name Generator” and “King Of You” sound as if T. Rex would have recorded versions of Spoon songs in the early 70s, while tracks like “Taste The Ceiling” and “You Satellite” (my personal favorite track on the album) show off classic Wilco with added David Bowie and Velvet Underground seasoning. There’s even one song, “Pickled Ginger” that reminds me of Suicide, something I thought I’d never say in a million years when describing a Tweedy composition.
It’s difficult to review a Wilco record to begin with. Do you critique the record based on comparisons to previous albums or how it stands on it’s own? In some ways, it’s the most interesting album the band has put out in the past ten years. Songs are short and to the point. There’s no pretentious Bob Dylan meets Gordon Lightfoot tangents that has earned them the label of being America’s Radiohead, yet the exercises in experimentation are strange enough to almost guarantee zero radio play from mainstream stations. This is the Wilco we all know and love but bent on making a fun record for the first time in a long time. Star Wars may not be Wilco’s greatest achievement, but they have certainly crafted a sweetly dense record that is just as much unique as it is fun. Die hard fans will welcome this light, upbeat direction, and casual fans will be pleased to find that maybe the band isn’t finished and full on capable of creating something relevant in today’s indie rock scene.
With that said, I don’t really think this will win any new fans over. To someone who hasn’t listened to AM, Being There, or even Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it may be hard to appreciate Star Wars for what it is on the whole. There’s nothing here that is mind blowing that puts it above anything that’s being played on alternative radio or anything the band has released in the past. Never the less, it’s available for free for both new and old fans alike. Perhaps releasing it free isn’t some sort of ploy to get people to listen that haven’t given them a proper chance, but an actual gift for the fans that have stuck with them over the years? Instead of giving their fans a gift card to Sears, Wilco has given them something personalized crafted by hand. I wouldn’t expect anything less from Tweedy and the gang, and just as they are thanking us, I thank them.
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.