When Wilco announced the imminent release of a new album that was not only free, and not only called Star Wars, but also featured a portrait of a cat as the cover art, I was, to put it mildly, flummoxed.
I did not think this was a Good Thing. I had reservations. I figured the move was a way for them to get rid of some substandard tunes and rekindle fan interest. Maybe it was also an apology for the genial handshakes that constitute the bulk of 2011’s The Whole Love and 2009’s Wilco [the album].
I’ve nothing against geniality, and Wilco does it well. I just can’t get excited about it. So I decided I wouldn’t listen. I didn’t want to be disappointed. I should have known better, I should have had some faith, but I’m on a cynical downswing and apathy is just so easy…
A Monday morning text from my buddy Caleb made me reconsider: he compared it favorably to a record we did a few years ago, which I didn’t quite know how to process. It would mean Wilco had changed direction entirely, and I hadn’t anticipated the possibility of a paradigm shift. Musicians generally don’t get more adventurous as they age. All that being said, it’s always a pleasant shock when a band you thought you had figured out throws you a curveball called Star Wars. With a cat on the cover.
So I listened. And it’s something. A very free something, so you might as well listen to it, too. But really listen to it—don’t skip the first track because it’s boring and you don’t get it. There’s beauty in that sound. I wanted more, but Wilco evidently has the kind of restraint that I lack, and so the freenoise tease of “EKG” lasts just long enough to propel us forward into “More…” and it’s hard to wrap your ears around but not in a deterring way. The presentation entices you to figure it out, and I love it when an artist nails that.
There’s a specific kind of fuzz guitar spread all over this deal. It’s the kind that dudes in guitar shops love to talk about and can never demonstrate. It’s smooth and crunchy and breaks up in all the right ways. Marc Bolan is jizzing in his grave. But it’s not a heavy record, not even close. It feels like the same aesthetic as Sky Blue Sky to be honest—like the songs are being whispered in your ear—but instead of low-key acoustic ballads this is jovial Krautrock filtered through Midwestern reticence. This feeling culminates in whatever the hell is going on in “Pickled Ginger”—I’m never gonna get tired of Nels Cline playing guitar, because he doesn’t play guitar, he does something else entirely, I don’t know what. It’s beyond my comprehension.
There’s a lot of space, is what I’m trying to say. Even in the lyrics, where Jeff Tweedy is normally happy to craft intricate images, here he’s scaled it back even further than the minimalist A Ghost Is Born, so minimal that it becomes impressionist. I don’t know if it’s the loose instrumentation or the song structures, but I hear a lot of Astral Weeks in here. The vocal is treated like an instrument, drifting in and out in contrast to whatever kind of odd-metered perpetual motion groove John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche are kicking up.
Star Wars is loose and chaotic and clearly very meticulously cultivated. It takes a lot of hard work to make something sound easy; just ask the Strokes, those wild drugged-up partyboys who love nothing more than long nights in the studio sharpening takes to a razor edge. You can’t fool me. Those guys work their asses off. There’s no other way to end up with something that sounds so good. And the same rule applies here. It’s got this weird vibrance. I feel a lot of the same satisfaction I used to feel listening to Revolver—I mean, I hate to drag the Beatles into this and spoil the perfectly nice moment we were having, so let’s just forget it.
Star Wars is a search party with great instincts. It’s shocking in such pleasant way—a bottle rocket at a picnic, a triple play, the part in Mad Max: Fury Road where Immortan Joe gets it. In other words, exactly the kind of stuff that I fuck with.