Chicago’s hometown heroes Wilco surprised the city and the world at large this month with a surprise drop of a completely free album of new material out of nowhere late on a Thursday night. Not only was the drop surprising, but so was the album title and design: named Star Wars which was certainly the result of some goofy late night conversation the band had, and it boasts a furry white cat and some flowers on the cover (which certainly will help them avoid any lawsuits from Disney). The band surprised further by boldly playing straight through their new album to start their set the night after its release at Pitchfork Music Festival, a move that baffled the general audience but went straight to the heart of Wilco diehards like myself. If that’s not enough surprise talk, the real honest surprise comes in the music itself: a distorted, noise rock album that channels Sonic Youth, T. Rex, and Velvet Underground more than the pleasant alt-country sound they are best known for.
Instrumental opener “EKG” completely lives up to its name, like taking a defibrillator made out of electric guitars and shocking the listener back to life. If “EKG” didn’t get your attention, the woozy guitars and distorted vocals of “More..” will make you feel comfortable before the triumphant and startling close of noisy brushfire of drums and guitar. Like their indie-rock counterparts Spoon, Wilco have wrestled with chaos and control in their music, and it’s especially notable in their live show with songs like “Via Chicago” and “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” playing on the tug of war of beauty and tragedy. Star Wars lets loose of the controls a little more than usual here, letting looseness and chaos live out a little more than usual, but it remains a good-natured mess of noise.
Much of the record takes a new turn for Wilco channeling the groovy noise of Marc Bolan of T. Rex on songs like “Random Name Generator” and “Pickled Ginger”, which value fuzzed out guitar and a muted-cool vocal from front man Jeff Tweedy above all else. It’s a refreshing new direction for the band, and beside the album centerpiece “You Satellite”, delivers above everything else live. Tweedy has returned to his playful songwriting ways here as well, speaking in playful metaphor and word association like he did on Summer Teeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Speaking of “You Satellite”, more than anything else which could be tossed off as playful if not serious additions to the catalog, “You Satellite” projects itself into the realm of all-time Wilco greats. It’s sort of Velvet Underground crossed with Explosions in the Sky, a shooting rocket of post-rock that reaches a brief moment of transcendence. It’s the band at its most open yet experimental.
Star Wars closes digging further back into the rabbit hole of rock history, channeling the end of Abbey Road with its dramatic start/stop approach, melodic guitars, and unorthodox drumming. “Where Do I Begin” plays like pretty standard mid-tempo Wilco fare for much of the song, until it suddenly breaks: drummer Glen Kotche flips the script with a truly strange drum fill which begins you warping back and forth in time with phased-out guitars and synthesizers. The high-stepping honky-tonk stomp of “King of You” gives the band a second to flaunt their skills before the near-perfect close of “Magnetized”. The album closer is the closest thing Wilco has to the Beatles’ “Because”, and the best connection to the album title and theme Star Wars. It’s a reminder that we are all magnetized: a grand symphony of molecules swirling together and connected in this infinite universe. It’s a beautiful closing sentiment, to an album all about chaos, to close saying we are all tied together.
Early reviews of Star Wars appear to be building up the fact that with it being a free surprise release that is so loose in nature, that it’s a pleasant, amusing album but ultimately not to be taken as seriously as most of their records. While it may be looser than most of their releases, there’s more here than any album they’ve released in the past decade: their best record since 2004’s A Ghost Is Born.
Can’t Miss: “You Satellite”, “Random Name Generator”, “More…”, “Pickled Ginger”
Can’t Hit: None