The advantage of surprise can overcome a multitude of sins; poor planning, mediocre workmanship, sloppy execution, they can all be forgiven when one is presented with a gift of unexpectedness. Other times a pleasant surprise can be just that: pleasant, enjoyable, and well crafted. Though obviously not the world-altering shot in the dark that was Beyonce’s self-titled 2013 release, Wilco delivered an album that feels as natural as the hot summer breeze it floated in on but remains as memorable as that first music festival you attended in high school.
For sure, some observers will scoff. Star Wars is the musical manna of a band in its twilight, they will suggest; the Grateful Dead for aging hipsters and professionals hoping to show off their cultural bonafides. Even Gen X icon and ToM spirit animal Adam Horowitz aka Ad Rock, dismissed them in a recent interview. Discussing his role in the most recent Noah Baumbach film, While We Were Young, Horowitz admitted his character, “a happily neutered urbanite” was more or less him “except for the Wilco CD.”
Granted, Jeff Tweedy seems more interested in touring with his progeny than leading a band that for a certain segment of Generation X occupies a hallowed place in the canon of indie rock (if one can call a band that sold out radio musical hall in the aughts several nights in a row, indie.) As The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber pointed out, today’s youth view Tweedy and company with side-eyed skepticism. “As they’ve kept chugging into middle age, this core artistic premise, [a comfort with being misunderstood],” writes Kornahber, “has often been obscured by the dismissive description ‘dad-rock,’ factually accurate though it may be (after all, Tweedy recently put out a record with his teenage son).” To a youthful population enamored with the rightly celebrated Toro y Moi, Washed Out, Drake, Taylor Swift, or any number of countless younger acts, Wilco might seem like an artifact of earlier generations.
Yet, the album hardly feels staid or predictable. True, Wilco has always hewed closer to Sergeant Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band than toward the now-ascendant cultural totem pole that is Pet Sounds. That said, more than a dose of Pet Sounds, even if thrust forward by Beatle influence melody, seemed resident on Summerteeth. In many ways, for this writer, the two albums feel like the great divide in modern rock music (again, whatever one considers “modern rock music”). Radiohead’s turn toward electronic pulses and squiggly lines, away from the guitar-driven OK Computer shared much more in common with the Brian Wilson head trip than the Beatles’ concept album. One need only listen to Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks” from Veckatimest to know the torch that seemed to alight the hearts of rockist bands everywhere descended from Southern California, not England.
Not Wilco: listen to Summerteeth, an album some consider its true classic rather than the towering Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Its predecessor, Being There, also channeled the Beatles in numerous ways. Whether fair or not, many fans seem to credit the late Jay Bennett for Being There and Summerteeth. Many believe, at the very least, Bennett reined in Tweedy’s more esoteric predilections.
Of course, this is not to say that Wilco doesn’t dabble in the dark arts of experimentation. YHF proved the band adventurous outside the confines of Beatlesque pop as tape hisses, feedback, and industrial noises all made their way into the mix. Sonic Youth-like washes of white noise cascaded into the Wilco sound, juxtaposed against some of their alt-country/Woody Guthrie underpinnings with the remaining dashes of the Liverpool foursome.
The darker Sonic Youth angle persisted with A Ghost is Born, an album divided between the rattling inside of Jeff Tweedy’s migraine-wracked brain (“At Least That’s What You Said,” “Less than You Think,” “Hell is Chrome”), the euphoria of wide open spaces (“Hummingbird,” “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” and “Muzzle of Bees”) and the nostalgia of days gone by (“The Late Greats”).
The band moved away from those two albums on Wilco. Their self-titled effort had some tongue-in-cheek moments like “Wilco (The Song)” and can be chalked up as a solid addition to their legacy, but it eschewed the more challenging approach of YHF or Ghost. Many saw the The Whole Love as a return to form. It began with a veritable slap across the face with the “Art of the Almost” but ended with the almost whispered 12 minute “One Sunday Morning,” a song that contrasted deeply with the album’s opener. We can ignore Sky Blue Sky, which came after A Ghost is Born and before Wilco. It by far stands as the weakest link in Wilco’s discography. To this listener it felt like sleepy seventies rock without any of the humor, though it does contain one of their best songs in “Impossible Germany.”
Without a doubt, the new album shares much more in common with The Whole Love and YHF, though not as epic as the latter. Star Wars continues Wilco’s unique blend of dissonance and catchiness, though this writer argues by incorporating new elements. The band still refuses to drink from the (admittedly glorious) trough of acid-era Brian Wilson, but the sense of adventure remains. Ziggy Stardust may not be making an appearance on Star Wars, but good god the spirit of Mick Ronson slips in there on some Boba Fett silent mercenary shit. Tracks like “The Joke Explained,” “Random Name Generator,” “Pickled Ginger,” and “More” feature a muted fuzz that’s not exactly Bowie-era “Suffragette City,” but it might be the 21st century version on ludes. Moreover, one could argue you can hear traces (some would argue swaths) of the Velvet Underground filtered through new bands like Ought on songs like “You Satellite” and the very brief “EKG.”
In Wilco’s best songs, a certain musical and emotional tension has always been present. In arguably the album’s strongest track, “You Satellite,” there seems to be the soft push of anxiety highlighted by the guitar’s pitch of repetitive, quiet desperation; the song orbits itself. “More” ends with the wash of fuzzed out feedback and Tweedy smoothly crooning “More than I have/More than I can give/More than there is/More than there exists.” On “Magnetized,” Tweedy sings “Everyone wastes my time,” following it up with the bittersweet fact that the narrator “sleeps under a picture of you and me,” noting that he realizes “we’re magnetized.” However, who is to know if that means magnetized attraction, repulsion, or erasure.
Perhaps one might add a sense of bemusement to the proceedings on Star Wars, but as with all things Wilco there exist dueling senses of melancholy and humor. “I belong to the stars in the sky/ Random, random name generator,” sings Tweedy, but later notes, “If I miss your breeze or you miss mine/I kinda like it when I make you cry.” A kind of schizophrenic musing on relationships and love existed on Summerteeth as narrators swung from exuberant expressions of love and joy: “Will, I catch the moon/like a bird in a cage/It’s for you I swoon/I’m always in love,” to dark, visions of murder, “I dreamed of killing you again last night/and it felt alright with me/ Dying on the banks of Embarcadero skies/I sat and watched you bleed.” The mood stays more measured here: think slightly detached Han Solo rather than Neil Young-era “Down by the River.” On “The Joke Explained,” the music at first seems breezy, only to be undercut by lyrics like “I never knelt at a noose/My pair perished in the pews/I climbed back into the yoke/It always ends in a tie.”
Indeed, Star Wars “reminds [us] that Wilco aren’t just reliable, safe rockers; they’re some of the most generous experimentalists to ever pick up guitars,” asserts Kornhaber. Surprise releases also eliminate great expectations or the pressure of meeting the YHF bar of greatness; it’s online, it’s free, what can one complain about? Such a move frees Wilco from the usual constraints and anxieties. No need for angsty documentaries like I’m Trying to Break Your Heart here. “Star Wars feels like a bootleg, like their basement tapes,” ToM co-editor Alex Cummings related in an email, “a lot more relaxed and less thought-out than most of their albums.” I would agree with both gentlemen, though for all the T-Rex/Mick Ronson guitar, the album remains shot through with dashes of the usual Wilco fatalism. “No one tells me how to behave/I’m born and I go in the grave.” Han Solo couldn’t have said it better.