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On first appearance, everything about Wilco’s eighth studio album, Star Wars, feels throwaway. The familiar, yet seemingly random name, the meme-like cover of a cat and not least the fact that it was released with very little fanfare for free on their website. Add to this the fact that it’s their shortest effort to date, with the longest song last just over five minutes. All of these details suggest that Star Wars is Wilco cutting loose and having fun. After a few listens, however, it’s evident that Wilco have put more of an effort into their latest effort than anything they’ve done in a long time.
If anybody could be forgiven for resting on their laurels, it’s Wilco. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, released almost 14 years ago, is widely accepted to be one of the best records of this century, and it established Wilco as being something of a monolithic figure in American music. The group’s releases since then seemed to indicate that they were warming to the idea of becoming the Great American Rock Band. This isn’t to say that they stopped experimenting, but certainly the four albums that followed Yankee revealed a marked conservatism. Added to this is the fact that the band’s current line-up (guitarist/singer Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stiratt, keyboardist Mikael Jorgenson, guitarist Nels Cline and keyboardist/guitarist Pat Sansone) has been together for just under a decade.
Wilco appeared to be moving in a direction that was increasingly comfortable. Recent releases have been labelled “Dad Rock”. The stable nature of the group meant that the musicians became incredibly comfortable with each other. While this isn’t a bad thing, it seemed to sap some urgency from the band. “Cutting loose” for Wilco meant allowing each member to indulge in a long display of their own musicianship. Nothing wrong with this, as such, but it can get very boring very quickly.
Star Wars, with its short, fuzzy songs, is a clear break from recent albums, and it pumps a new lease of life into Wilco. Rather then meander into nothingness, most of the tracks are very sharp and focused. Nels Cline, who has a background in jazz guitar and who is by all accounts a virtuoso, is heavily reined in on this album. Typically, Wilco would allow their three guitarists to bounce off each other, to build a wall of sound, but on Star Wars, the guitars are reduced to simply providing driving riffs. This isn’t to say that Cline doesn’t throw in some truly spectacular lines and runs here and there, but its very much toned down from what he’s capable off. Much of this album was recorded live, and so that the studio trickery that Wilco is famed for is absent. Jim O’Rourke, producer of much of the band’s oeuvre was not involved in Star Wars, and thus most of the studio experimentation is reduced to trying different guitar pedals on different songs.
Already, some of these tracks have been debuted live, and in performing them Wilco feel more energetic then they have in quite a while. Jeff Tweedy hasn’t seemed so direct and urgent since his days in Uncle Tupelo and some tracks, such as ‘Random Name Generator’, ‘More…’ ‘The Joke Explained’ and ‘Your Satellite’ sound like there coming from a band trying to cover New York art-punks Television. For a band in which most of the members are nearing middle age, this is a serious achievement. These songs are made all the more remarkable by the fact that a lot of other tracks on the record wouldn’t sound out of place on Abbey Road. Album closer ‘Magnetized’ boasts a particularly Beatles-esque melody, and the instrumentation (a crisp mix of drums, piano and guitar) sounds remarkably well put together. ‘Where Do I Begin’ starts off as a minimal folk ballad but segues into an extended coda of punchy guitars and backward drums that could come off a Small Faces record. Elsewhere, ‘Pickled Ginger’ and ‘Cold Slope’ sound like tracks that Marc Bolan or John Lennon would conjure up at their best, swaggering pysch/glam songs that brim with confidence and energy.
Wilco are a band whose place in the rock canon is well established. They’ve reached a point in their career where an album could literally just be an excuse to tour. They could have released something much less interesting then Star Wars and charged full whack. Releasing an album as good as Star Wars, for free, with no ceremony, is evidence that there’s life in Wilco yet, and that they probably have a few more seriously good releases in them. If only all surprise albums were this good (cough, U2, cough).