Words by Brian Salvatore
Like a benevolent, rock and roll Santa Claus, Wilco dropped their ninth studio LP, Star Wars, as a free download late last week, ensuring that dads in their 30s and 40s had the soundtrack to their weekends spent walking their kids around in strollers. And, much like the release itself, the album holds a number of surprises within.
If A Ghost Is Born is the ‘migraines and painkillers’ record, and Sky Blue Sky is the ‘extended lineup learning each other’s sensibilities’ record, Star Wars appears to be the ‘fuck it, let’s rock out’ record. Fuzzy guitars are the main sonic ingredient here, skroning and wheezing in a way that the band never really embraced before.
The record, especially on the first few listens, really evoked Loose Fur, the side project of Wilco songwriter Jeff Tweedy, drummer Glenn Kotche, and producer Jim O’Rourke. Loose Fur songs tend to be more immediate, raw, and have more elements of atonality and noise than the average Wilco record. Born Again in the USA, the second Loose Fur record, is perhaps the closest sonic touchstone for Star Wars in Tweedy’s career.
That said, A Ghost is Born, which is the Wilco record that Star Wars most closely resembles. Both albums go furthest in the raw, ugly sound department, and both seem to pare down the band input, not needing to feature each member prominently on each track. Keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, perhaps the member whose sonic stature has grown the most over the past few records, is nearly invisible here, playing synths and organs that blend into the background of most tracks. Similarly, guitarist Nels Cline, an absolute virtuoso player, here takes a back seat to Tweedy’s noisy experiments, as well.
Because of the disappearing act on certain songs, when the full band does come together, like on “You Satellite,” the results are stunning. The punkier, looser sound on the majority of the record sets you up for these moments to knock you on your ass, and it certainly works. That’s not to say that the more stripped down moments don’t work either; “Random Name Generator” is one of the catchiest songs of the year, built around a stupidly great riff and some fun lyrics. But “You Satellite” sounds like a culmination of the past 20 years of the band’s history distilled into one piece of music; it is melodic, challenging, surprising, interesting, and beautiful.
As the record goes on, the balancing act keeps jumping back and forth; “Taste the Ceiling” and “Cold Slope” sound like classic Wilco, where “Pickled Ginger” – which originates from an episode of Parks and Recreation – goes even further into the fuzzy guitar minimalism direction. The shifts in sonic direction, the tossed off nature of some of the lyrics, and the direct, no-nonsense production all make the record seem a little undercooked, which is exactly what the band needed. Wilco (The Album) and The Whole Love seemed to perfect the sound that this lineup was assembled to produce, and so the albums, though excellent, sounded like how you’d imagine them to sound.
I can honestly say that I would have never heard this album coming – and that is an exciting and wonderful thing to say about a band as successful, reliable, and accomplished as Wilco.
© July 17th, 2015
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