Surprise! Wilco has a new album. The out-of-the-Blue (Sky Blue) release of their 9th studio album Star Wars on Thursday, July 16th was just the start of the surprise. Wilco being benevolent indie gods released this 11-track album on their website as a FREE download, making it a true Christmas in July. Then top it all off, they made the cover a painting of a fluffy white cat and called it Star Wars (Though I’m not sure if it is a nod to George Lucas’ iconic space opera or Reagan’s failed missile defense system).
The last studio album Wilco released was The Whole Love (2011), and despite a tribute album to Woody Guthrie in 2012, a side project released last year by Jeff Tweedy featuring his son, and two best of albums celebrating 20 years of Wilco (also out last year) we hadn’t heard much in the way of new material from them in just shy of four years. Sure they were touring the country and sharing the stage with Bob Dylan, but us rabbid fans get greedy and need shiny new tracks. Wilco has delivered; and done it on the free. Like The Whole Love, Star Wars was also released on their own independent label dBpm. Despite having 11 tracks, the album is only 33 minutes long, making it the shortest Wilco album yet.
The two words that kept surfacing in my mind as I listened to Star Wars for the first time were fuzzy and trippy. Obviously in the context of Wilco, the second word isn’t a new one, most of their albums could be described as trippy, but this one felt a little different. This trip felt a bit more Magical Mystery Tour than Sgt. Peppers if you know what I mean. It is not overtly psychedelic but compared to their previous albums (which were more on the folksy-trippy side), Star Wars leaves you wondering if you are indeed the walrus.
Part of the reason it is a different kind of trippy than previous albums is that it is smothered in fuzz. Almost every track is driven by an electric guitar dripping in overdrive. It is not the first time they have used fuzzy guitars but it is new to hear that sound dominating most of a song and almost all of the album. At first it was a little grating (especially since the first 3 tracks are in-your-face grungy rock songs) but by the fourth track it is apparent that there is a method to the fuzzy madness. The fuzz stops sounding like an overarching theme and more like a drone string on a sitar or banjo; it provides a steady backbone to let the other instrumentalists do what Wilco does best: layer. Almost every Wilco track has some intricate and purposeful layering of sounds creating a complex wave that your brain can barely keep up with.
Star Wars does not start off shy, its first track “EKG” sounds like Deerhoof warming up. It is the most spastic, fuzzy track and is also the shortest weighing in at a brief 1:16. This track is later contrasted both in length and feel by “You Satellite” which is just over 5 minutes long and much more atmospheric. It builds slowly in volume and crunch till about 3 minutes in when it starts an instrumental tangent that lets go into spastic guitars, a progression reminiscent of the outro of “Poor Places“. Tracks like the toe-tappable “Taste the Ceiling”, the smooth, beautiful and catchy “Where Do I Begin”, the groovy “Cold Slope”, the driving, high-energy “Random Name Generator” and the choppy and bluesy “King Of You” emit that classic Wilco feeling while being fresh and evident of their innovation over the years. An interesting study in progression is “Pickled Ginger” starting with minimal fuzzy blues riff then adding Tweedy’s vocals sharing the harmony, we don’t even see drums until the song is almost half over and then they stutter in and out then finally start driving 1:20 into the 2:30 minute track. Then just as the driving rhythm is established there is a heavily delayed guitar run that disrupts everything just for a brief few seconds and then it is back to business.
Perhaps the most psychedelic song of the album is “Magnetized”; just shy of 4 minutes it wraps the album up with a delicious groove. The vocals are a mostly relaxed and start off with a hint of gloom but end up being a love song. With only slight changes in energy and noise, it ends in contrast to the chaos that opens the album up.
The album is not clean or even as catchy as some of their earlier releases but after a few listens I would add the adjectives fun and free. Sometimes having the freedom to produce an album under your own label provides you with too much freedom to explore and turn loyal fans away, but I don’t think there are many disappointed fans. It is a solid album and a great energy to compliment summer. It was definitely a pleasant surprise and with the $0 price tag, who can really complain. It will not be everybody’s cup of tea but it stands on its own and does not feel like a free album. It is a journey into newer Wilco territory and I, for one, appreciate the free ride.