A few days ago, Wilco shocked music citizens by releasing their unannounced ninth studio album. What’s more, the album is free to download. The Whole Love was Wilco’s last album, which was released four years ago. This next installment, entitled Star Wars, returns with typical Wilco traits: poetic lyrics, electric guitar riffs, acoustic guitar pleasantries, tender vocals, unorthodox chord progressions and drum rhythms, expansive layers of sounds and striking discords.
For the loyal Wilco fan, this album harbors Wilco’s unique style and delivers it through harsher undertones. However, for those unfamiliar with Wilco’s work, the album may come across as confusing, unnatural and mistakenly pretentious; Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is still the best place to start for those venturing into Wilco territory for the first time. Nevertheless, the album’s merit lies in the artistic production and stylistic creation of its songs.
The album opens with “EKG“, an instrumental anarchy of discords, electric guitar screeches and militaristic drum rhythms, that all come together in a climax of noises. The track lasts just over one minute and it reflects Wilco’s unabashed approach to the album. Wilco’s approach to incorporating noise and instrumental liberation dates back to their second album, Being There and has since been prevalent throughout their discography. Released in 1996, its opening track, “Misunderstood” begins with distorted guitar noises and inconsistent drum beats, but falls into a heartbreaking melodic tale before climaxing into an angry whirlwind of distortion.
The Whole Love opened with “Art Of Almost”, which, although was much less chaotic, was a complex mix of sounds and vocals that climaxed in menacing electric guitar screeching and frantic drumming. “Art Of Almost” catered for Wilco fans that were familiar with Wilco’s experimental noise reception, but as it structurally begins as a song with a melody, it still remains palatable to the unfamiliar listener. Unlike “Misunderstood” and “Art Of Almost”, “EKG” is much more brazen in embracing its blend of unconventional noises, which Wilco fans will respond well to, whereas new listeners could dismiss it as pretentious and unnecessary.
This brazen and daring approach to unconventional music production prevails throughout the album; almost every track features a crescendo into climax of noise infusion. However, this is not to say that there is nothing new for Wilco fans. Star Wars is a much heavier and louder album than its predecessors; every track bar one features a stomping electric guitar. Indeed, the timid, blissful and peaceful nature of “You and I” or “Country Disappeared” or even “Sky Blue Sky” is long gone. The album’s tamest track is the closing track, “Magnetized“, but even this track climaxes with a heavy bombardment of instruments and sounds – the same goes for “Where Do I Begin“. “Taste The Ceiling” is the most consistently calm song, echoing the likes of The Whole Love due to its full band sound and guitar solos.
Jeff Tweedy, the band’s front man and songwriter is renowned for his poetic imagery and romance in his lyrics. He is a songwriter who is unafraid to delve into various topics, ranging from love to heartbreak to self-reflection. “All my lies are always wishes/I know I would die if I could come back new” from 2002’s “Ashes of American Flags” is a powerful lyric and one that is clearly personal to him.
When writing 2011’s Born Alone, Tweedy said that he pieced together clippings of poetry from different sources, resulting in artistically creative lyrics such as “Tonight, I’d rather count the warm fuse internally/Subtract the silence of myself/I would rather choose the middle mind of mystery/Reverse a riddle for my health“. Thereby, having had eight previous albums of lyrical genius, Tweedy has set his own bar high for this album.
Fortunately, evocative lyrics are plentiful in Star Wars. “I kinda like it when I make you cry every once in a while and I belong to the stars in the day” from “Random Name Generator” are both cutting and void of any warmth. “Why do I forgive you/Because I get confused from Taste The Ceiling is unsettlingly veracious. I never held your gaze/I’ve never known my place/I stare at the eyes staring at my face/it always ends in a tie” from “The Joke Explained” is filled with defeat, ending each chorus with “But if I had known/I would have never believed“.
To a large extent, Wilco are in their element on this album. As a body of work, Star Wars is an artistic expression of emotion delivered through expansive boundaries of conventional musical elements. As a result, Star Wars will appeal to the already nurtured Wilco appetite but may leave newcomers bitterly bemused. Nevertheless, it is a magnificent album that deserves its place in Wilco legacy. Download Star Wars for free for a limited time only here, while CDs and Vinyl copies can be pre-ordered here.
Words by Cohan Chew