Album Review: Wilco, Star Wars
By Nate Etter
With the unannounced release of their 9th studio effort, Star Wars, Wilco seems to be in the midst of a modern musical experiment. Not only is the 11-song collection the most experimental the veteran band has offered since A Ghost Is Born (2004), the strategy surrounding its release was equally interesting. Framed as a gift for fans, the album is available for free download until August 13 (Wilcoworld.net) and then has an official CD release August 21 (vinyl to follow November 27).
As its apt title suggests, Star Wars is a spacey endeavor. Wilco is known for their penchant to explore (the often-used comparison to Radiohead is not entirely unfair), but rarely, if ever, has the band been so dedicated to the weird. The predominant theme is a fuzzy, casual sound–like Jeff Tweedy and the boys recorded in a smoky basement while guitarist Nels Cline toyed with a treasure chest of new effect pedals. The resulting half-hour of rock is mostly void of the catchy alt-country melodies you’d expect, but draws you in just the same.
The album kicks off with the chaotic instrumental “EKG,” a free-for-all that somehow stays together to introduce you to the crackling grunge to follow. The driving “Random Number Generator” is a certain highlight, doubling down on the theme of reinvention as Tweedy croons, “I change my name every once in awhile.” The band channels the sound of a deviant Bob Dylan going electric with “The Joke Explained,” an enjoyable reflection with religious overtones (I cry at the joke explained / If I had known / I never would’ve believed). A slow-building “You Satellite” annoys in its simplicity, but floats into yet another exploration that holds strong through tempo changes and a wall of collective reverb. Electric ballads “Pickled Ginger” and “Where Do I Begin” miss the mark with vocals lost in the mix, while “Taste the Ceiling,” “Cold Slope” and the album-closing “Magnetized” find a whispering, warm Tweedy in his prime.
Star Wars has brilliant moments, generic moments, emotional moments and confusing moments. It won’t go down as the pick of the litter from Wilco’s diverse discography, but it is certainly not a release to be overlooked. It is, after all, a free rock-and-roll ride from one of America’s most enduring acts.