Wilco (photo by Zoran Orlic, PR)
Over the past twenty years, Wilco has managed to be both mainstream and decidedly non-commercial. Through intelligent songwriting, exceptional musicianship, and a hunger for artistic exploration and experimentation, the members of Wilco have shaped a unique niche for themselves.
Star Wars, Wilco’s ninth studio release and the band’s first new album in four years, was unexpectedly dropped on July 17 as a free digital download with no advance promotion. The band gleefully unveiled the album via a simple announcement on their website, Facebook and Twitter; suddenly, it was Christmas in July for Wilco fans.
The album’s abrupt release isn’t the only surprising quality of Star Wars. Its brevity is also notable: just 11 songs clocking in at just over 34 minutes. But despite the short running time, Star Wars exudes confidence with its loose, casual and relaxed feel. Listening to the album’s short bursts of creative energy, it's easy to imagine a bunch of gear-minded musicians given free rein in a studio filled with instruments, electronic gadgets, effects pedals and more. Take this “kid in a candy shop” scenario and couple it with Wilco’s innovative track record, and you might expect a meandering, unfocused wall of noise to be the final result. But the band manages to make it work.
Despite the fuzzed and distorted guitars, electronic ephemera and muffled vocals, melodies abound. This is evident in the rocking “Random Name Generator” and the laidback “Taste The Ceiling,” the latter sounding the closest to a classic, acoustic Wilco track.
“Where Do I Begin” is two ideas in one, starting as an intimate moment for frontman Jeff Tweedy before rumbling into a hectic, all-band coda. “You Satellite” takes the time and space to develop, unwinding like a Velvet Underground opus. On the other side, “EKG” is slightly more than one minute of angular guitars, reminiscent of Adrian Belew-era King Crimson. If there is a drawback to Star Wars, it’s that the album tends to drift towards the end, losing some of the focus evident earlier on.
Star Wars is an album that promises to reveal more secrets with each additional listen. It’s the work of an inimitable band of talented musicians who have mastered the art of balancing their craft with a free-minded, experimental approach. They keep their ideas fresh. And by initially offering this latest work for free, Wilco has expressed their appreciation to their fans. The band is very aware that they are fortunate to be in such a situation; it’s one that most artists will never have the pleasure to experience.
Star Wars will be available as a free download until August 13. The album will be released on CD on August 21 and on vinyl on November 27.