Album Review: Wilco, “Star Wars”

Written by Album Reviews, Music

Wilco unleashed the blinking kitty last week on an unsuspecting audience. Does it blow blow up your Death Star or just scratch away at the kitty litter?

wilco-star-warsWe’ve seen this a few times now. With the immediacy and access that the Internet offers, an artist announces they are dropping a secret album for you, the adoring fan, for free. All you have to do is provide your email address and it is yours. Putting aside the latent sneakiness of getting you to sign up for their email subscription list with a “gift,” most people do not see the harm in accepting the offer. Free is free. The catch is quite often that the received recording sounds appropriate to the money you paid for it. Without having spent a dime, you still would want your money back.

At first, that’s what one believes when they start up Wilco’s newest effort Star Wars. The sound of the opening “EKG” is an awful lot like Jeff Tweedy and company farting in your face with guitars. Fortunately this instrumental (?) overture is short and the following album is much, much better. It takes a little time to reach that level of acceptance though. First and second run-throughs of the recording leave the false impression of noise-obscured half tracks, but suddenly on the third try, things begin to click for the listener.

“More…,” what I consider to be the proper start of Star Wars is not too far afield from tracks like “Wilco (the song),” only it is a lot rougher and looser in performance and production, and is appreciated easier when the preconceived expectations fall away. After all, with the copious amounts of production work Tweedy has been doing beside his own solo effort, and with the time away since 2011’s The Whole Love, I think plenty of folks thought that Wilco was done for. Therefore, upon realization that the band was back, the first response assumed this would be a huge production, a big, arm-waving “we’re back” of a record.

In a sense, Star Wars is. It is just as extravagant as a comeback demands, only that extravagance is expressed in guitar-chewing abandon, such as the nearly post-rock “You Satellite” and the T. Rexified “Random Name Generator.” Meanwhile, tracks like “Taste The Ceiling” and the mostly-spare “Where Do I Begin” would not have been so far out of place on anything within the Sky Blue Sky-to-The Whole Love span. The knotty “King Of You” shares kinship with indie rock artisans Field Music with its lopsided beat falling on the opposite side of the melody line. The closing “Magnetized” offers up the once-expected welcome back you assumed, with a bigger arrangement and a sense of grandeur the rest of the album deftly avoids.

In short, Star Wars ends up being an album where Wilco sounds like it really does love you. In my opinion, that hasn’t always been the case, and if you felt burned by A Ghost Is Born, the record that Star Wars is most often equated with, you might be dealing with the same hesitance I had. The outpouring of goodwill that came after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot seemed utterly squandered with that follow-up, whereby weirdness, incomprehensibility, and let’s just say lazy was the soup of the day. It was the soundtrack of the guy who wakes up in a very strange bed after a night of heavy drinking, gets a little panicked, then says “oh well,” rolls over, and goes back to sleep.

Albums after that seemed to pay penance for the sloppy transgression by being too careful. Often those self-imposed limitations produced good works like the Steely Dan-bromantic “Impossible Germany” or the endlessly singable “One Wing” and “You Never Know.” But it did saddle Wilco with the stupid, made-up genre of Dad Rock: new music that studiously hews to older rock, the kind your dad would dig. If we’re applying that loose directive to Star Wars — guess what? — it’s still Dad Rock, only this dad is a little freakier than the others. All this is to say that if you are fearing an art rock mess that attempts to extricate Wilco from the care they’ve taken for the past three records, there’s no reason to be afraid of Star Wars.

And it has a cat on the cover, which makes it perfect as a temporarily free Internet album, don’t you think?

Star Wars is available by clicking the the link in the title.