In a mere two and half years, the surprise album release has become a staple of the modern music industry. The proliferation of “pulling a Beyoncé” poses a frustrating conundrum for fans of today’s chart-toppers. The specter of an unannounced release encourages greater tinkering and more teasing on the artist’s part, as well as unfairly heightened expectations from the audience (we’re still waiting for the so-called R8 and SWISH). For a well-established band like Wilco, though, the surprise album release is a fortuitous sea change — an opportunity for a beloved unit to bestow upon its fanbase a collection of no-strings-attached, anticipation-free music.
Wilco’s ninth studio album Star Wars therefore arrives as a present, a pleasant surprise, rather than a product of endless delays and cryptic tweets. And Star Wars is indeed a gift — a strangely simultaneously scuzzy and breezy gem of a record that clocks in at just over a half hour. Don’t be fooled by the recent Parks and Recreation cameos and father-son tours — Jeff Tweedy still has plenty of frustration and gnarled guitar histrionics up his sleeve.
Star Wars continues a precedent set by the band’s previous 2011 effort The Whole Love in an effort to move away from the complacent, “dad rock”-flirting lite country of its late-Aughts releases. The record boasts snappy hooks, passive-aggressive bon mots, and plenty of noise, proving that Tweedy has no intention of calming down anytime soon. To paraphrase the record’s second track, the singer-songwriter wants “more than that.”
The tone is established right out of the gate by the introductory “EKG,” its squalls of screeching guitars and atonal jangling bizarrely reminiscent of the peaks and valleys of its eponymous panicking machine. Fuzzed-out din abounds over the next ten tracks — zippy stompers like “Random Name Generator” and “King of You” threaten to engulf Tweedy’s insistent mumbling almost entirely in noise. “Pickled Ginger” echoes fellow late 90s indie stalwarts Spoon, commencing with a funky beat and strutting vocal tics before exploding into a mess of VU-channeling guitar antiheroics.
Not to worry — there’s still a healthy dose of alt-country contemplation, but with a twist. “Taste the Ceiling” and “Where Do I Begin” open as easygoing numbers that may have initially sounded right at home on the mellow Sky Blue Sky, but it’s only a brief reprieve before they too descend into frenetic instrumental madness. The bluesy closer “Magnetized” sports some stunning 60s folk crooning harmonies on its chorus, but with a rumbling undertone that threatens to explode. Yet, even with all of the distortion creeping through the fabric of its songs, Star Wars still manages a natural flow to its production and sequencing, never seeming too fussed over as the storm rages on.
Star Wars isn’t simply a sonic battle — Tweedy’s lyrics reveal plenty of personal frustration. There are stories of romantic disillusion and renewal, as on “Where Do I Begin”, which stresses the transition from “where do we end” to “where do I begin.” “Taste the Ceiling” mourns the advent of middle age and loneliness, pondering “why do our disasters creep slowly into view? I was only looking for a friend to follow through.” Then, of course, there are the fundamental questions of God and the meaning of life, as Tweedy muses “it always ends in a tie / there is no meeting the divine” on “The Joke Explained”. It’s a far cry from the self-referential navel-gazing of “do you dabble in depression? Wilco will love you, baby,” but equally as humorous. Star Wars actively endeavors to excise Tweedy’s demons, rather than simply contemplate their existence.
So why even call an album Star Wars when the title could not be more thematically irrelevant? Are Wilco just as excited for The Force Awakens as I am? Why contrast that title with the cover art of a fluffy, displeased feline? Maybe the simplest explanation for these choices is the explanation consistent with the ethos of the surprise self-released album premiere — Wilco can do whatever they want now. The same freedom exemplified by Star Wars’ method of distribution creeps into its content — Tweedy can call out whomever he wishes, turn up his guitar as loudly as he wants, and make music in whatever fashion he chooses. And we’re all better for it.