Without any hype, glamour, publicity, nor a hint of notice, Wilco has shocked us all with the greatest gift of all: free music. Somewhere between heavy rehearsing and a light touring schedule with his son Spencer on their father/son solo project, Tweedy, frontman Jeff Tweedy and company found the time to write, record, and release their 9th studio album, Star Wars.
The album, which follows the similar formula that worked wonderfully for Beyoncé or Radiohead and their zero-frills record releasing, is the band’s first LP since 2011’s The Whole Love. However, when you run your own recording label as Wilco does with dBpm, you truly call your own shots. Spanning 34 minutes and 11 tracks long, Star Wars, the band’s shortest album by 10 minutes, dropped Thursday, July 16th, released and remaining free for the 30 days following available through the band’s website, as well as Amazon, Google, and iTunes.
While seeing Tweedy at the Berklee Performance Center in the fall of 2014, Jeff Tweedy commented as to how bizarre and sometimes frustrating it is to be playing new material & working out songs to crowds while on tour, only to have a video of one of these new cuts, yet to be finished, go viral on YouTube, almost stunting the creative process and solidifying the track. This time around with Wilco, on tour and in public the band has managed to keep each one of these songs in the recording studio and off the Internet until they were ready.
Unlike 2011’s The Whole Love with its poppy and polished standout tracks like “Art of Almost” or 2009’s (Wilco) The Album and its single “Wilco The Song”, Star Wars, named tongue-in-cheek after the ubiquitous George Lucas saga, is a bit grittier. The album is a return to their mid-career style, complete with the alt-rock twang that defined their signature sound. Stabilized by Glenn Kotche’s superior drumming compliments, Nels Cline’s distorted and frenzied guitar & pedal work, and the spacey folk best exhibited from 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 2004’s A Ghost is Born, Star Wars may not be Wilco’s greatest studio work, but it’s surely more authentic and truer to the sound to the band that a half million fans fell in love with almost 15 years ago.
Bursting sonically, the opening track “EKG” is a quick 75 seconds of erratically mapped electronic punk, true to its title with spikes and dips tracing the energetic activity of the heart. “More…”, track two from the LP, returns to the traditional theme Tweedy’s songwriting is known for: wanting and incompleteness. Thematically, although all seems well on the home front and in Tweedy’s personal life, his lyrics remain prolific even throughout the simplistic and repetitive chant of the seemingly pointless hook from the song of the same name, the album’s heavy head-banger, “Random Name Generator.”
The beautiful melodies have returned and the band seems to be as cohesive and tight as ever. Has this come from time apart on their respectable side projects? Does this stem from post-midlife crisis? Are Tweedy’s dark days of substance abuse and near death-inducing marital separation behind him?
Together, as a whole, Wilco are more mature & comfortable with one another, having finally solidified as a unified group after years of lineup changes. The album is raw yet whimsical; grainy while playful.The band has managed to evolve while not necessary reinventing themselves: growth and maturity, acceptance and fatalism, humorous while still productive. While some fans may listen to the album and pigeonhole it as more of filler between real albums than part of the official canon of Wilco releases, this is a band that has repeatedly ascended classification, label, and branding. “Dad-Rock”, no more, Star Wars is heavy, tenacious, inventive, and fresh. Also, there’s no arguing that for now, the price is right.