In case you missed it, indie rock dad darlings Wilco dropped a new album on Thursday night, their first since 2011’s The Whole Love. Taking a page from Beyoncé, Drake, and D’Angelo, the record, Star Wars, was a surprise to fans and the press alike, unveiled without ceremony on social media. Unlike Queen Bey et. al., however, Star Wars adds a new twist —it’s totally free, at least for a limited time, via download from the band’s website.
Okay, “free” except that you have to agree to sign up for their mailing list. But I’ll take an email every now and then over shelling out $10. That’s, like, one organic IPA.
The four-year recording hiatus was an especially long one for the Chicago-based band, who’ve marked 10 albums and 20 years since their first offering, 1995’s A.M. Yet they’ve been anything but stagnant—members have been engrossed in numerous side projects, from Pat Sansone and John Stirratt’s The Autumn Defense to professionally rumpled front man Jeff Tweedy’s band with his son Spencer, the aptly titled Tweedy—as well as running their own biannual music festival in western Massachusetts.
One could argue that even after such a long interim between new material, giving away a whole album could excuse, or at least rationalize, lowering the bar as far as content. Yet Star Wars doesn’t disappoint—this isn’t floor scrapings from previous studio visits.
It is, in this listener’s opinion, the band’s best offering since 2007’s wonderfully grounding and adventuresome Sky Blue Sky.
Of course, as a listener, I fall right into Wilco’s stereotypical demographic. I’m about to be 40 years old, I have a kid, a job, a beard, and even have a penchant for flannel shirts. I harbor fond memories of my youth back in the ’90s, and am stuck between mourning its passing and steadfastly refusing to let it go by, wearing faded band tees and jeans that may be a little hipper than the rest of my lifestyle would indicate.
Full disclosure: I also, as a person who takes photos of and writes about music for a living, have something of an unwillingly adversarial relationship with Wilco. It stems, I gather, from a generally positive review of their Solid Sound music festival in which I described it as a “greatest hits collection of Stuff White People Like.” No insult was intended. I was referring to their venue, a modern art museum, with a parking lot full of Subaru Outbacks, activities that included urban bird watching and record swapping, obscure microbrews, swanky wines, and Whole Foods-worth food.
All of which I enjoyed, but also found a little cliché, or at least over-curated.
Again, while the review was good—I had fun! The bands were great!—Wilco’s team hasn’t spoken to me since, with the exception of a pointedly disgruntled email that may or may not have been from a band member, to deny me the opportunity to interview Tweedy and his son on their latest tour together.
Let’s talk about Star Wars, shall we?
As I said before, it’s good. Really good. Like, “Holy crap, the boys still have it!” good.
While generally beloved, at least by middle-class white people, college students, and hipsters over the age of 25, Wilco is a band that has found itself on the not-undeserving end of more than a few musical stereotypes. The first, while apt, is also the most tired trope: the whole “dad rock” thing. Basically, they make musically adept pop rock with enough fuzz and energy to appeal to aging men. Men who are moving beyond their ability, or emotional bandwidth, to process a constant barrage of heavier or more noodle-y music, and need a chill middle ground, without giving up the cool factor of listening to something “alternative.”
The band’s sound, appearance, and deep pedigree—Tweedy’s short-lived tenure in Uncle Tupelo is the stuff of alt-country/rock/what have you legend—make them the perfect version of not quite adult contemporary, while still having enough cultural cachet to rope in some adventuresome youngsters as well. There is also, no doubt, a whole generation of future fans who are coming of age having grown up listening to them with the old man, even smoking their first father-son doobie to “Impossible Germany.”
Wilco may be this generation’s Steely Dan.
Star Wars kicks things off with “EKG,” a brief instrumental track that will have you checking to make sure you didn’t accidently hit Sonic Youth instead. After getting your heart rate up, things get a little trippy and melodic with “More…” and its bright guitar and esoteric lyrics before devolving into a wall of dissonance and giving over to “Random Name Generator,” a straight-ahead garage rocker that is sure to become a live show favorite.
There’s no doubt at any time that this is a Wilco record—they have a signature sound that’s impossible to hide. They are, and have always been, who they are. But at the same time it feels inspired, far more so than the last couple of albums, which I found to be, while adept, also formulaic. “Taste the Ceiling” is the only real nod to this generic “Wilco-ness,” and before the masses of flannel-wearing Tweedy acolytes go ape shit in the comments section, this isn’t meant to be an insult. Wilco as an entity can only really be compared to themselves—sometimes they feel the magic and push the limits, and sometimes they don’t.
On much of Star Wars, they do.
The last few tracks of the album are the best.
Starting with “Pickled Ginger,” which will have you gunning that minivan V6 at stoplights as the opening riffs and buried vocals drive tension to a fever pitch before exploding into fuzzy madness. It kicks the record from “great” to “fuck yeah!, even though it’s not all rock n’ roll from here on out.
Wilco has always had a touch of melancholy under them. Tweedy’s struggles in this department are well-chronicled, and it’s his ability to harness this and, with intricate musicianship, weave a web of beautiful nostalgia that is one of their greatest gifts. It’s mesmerizing at times, reverb-soaked guitar and hoarse, almost-whispered vocals pulling you inward toward the place you store your memories, only to turn up the jams at the just right instant and bring you, whole, back to the present.
When at their best, and Star Wars is indeed that, Wilco can make you feel, whether you want to or not. Not “punch the air” or “twerk yer booty” or “I miss my baby” feelings, either. The real kind, the complicated ones that so often get buried deep beneath a surface of banal niceties and who-has-the-time-to-ponder lives set to garden variety pop music made by computers and focus groups.
This is exactly why they’ll always, even with their less inspired albums, be the stuff of underground legend, and command a cult following of denim-and-flannel clad acolytes. There’s a certain kind of person who can’t resist this subliminal, sonically-induced introspection.
The closing track, “Magnetized,” with soft, raspy lyrics and sparse, tick-tock drums, is the opus of the album. Equal parts experimental jams and raw emotion, with poignant delivery, it prophetically features the chorus, “realize we’re magnetized.” This is exactly the truth. Wilco are magnetized. Maybe not in a way that attracts the masses, but for people with the right internal polarity, they’re irresistible.