Releasing a new album out of nowhere–and for free–is usually a net positive for a veteran musical act, unless you’re U2 and put that record on millions of phones without so much as an opt-out.
The latest band to have a go at the free record chance is Wilco, the veteran Chicago alt-rock institution led by the tireless Jeff Tweedy. Their ninth album, Star Wars, is available for download off their website for free for a month. Inevitably, at the end of that period, it will be followed by a loss leader physical release that seems aimed at the die-hard music fan that cherishes physical releases or higher bitrates for digital files (because at this point, anyone else who is half interested in the record will already have it).
While Radiohead might be the go-to comparison for Star Wars, their record In Rainbows wasn’t technically released for free–even if a good chunk of those orders wound up being for $0.00. Instead, the best comparison would probably be Nine Inch Nails’ 2008 release The Slip, which had an identical release method. While it was a very good album, The Slip has wound up undervalued in NIN’s discography, particularly after their far superior followup Hesitation Marks appeared a few years later.
That shouldn’t be the case with Wilco’s Star Wars, though. It’s is a far better Wilco record than The Slip was a NIN record, to the point where it might just be their best since A Ghost is Born. The album is a grab bag of what makes Wilco great with a few new touches.
The first thing you’re going to notice about Star Wars is that name and that cover. Naming your record Star Wars is going to get some attention–especially in 2015 and especially if you put a painting of a kitty on the cover. That title might have some expecting a record that’s at least a little extravagant, but Wilco have never been a bombastic group. That’s been part of their charm over the course of their career; even with the semi-mythical Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and its numbers-station sampling over their heads, they’ve never been one to go over the top, and Star Wars is no exception. For a record named after some semi-obscure kids’ space movie thing from the 70s about robots or something, it feels quite grounded and low-key.
The most noticeable musical element on the record is the heaping ton of fuzz. Whole swaths of this record rely on heavy use of fuzzbox distortion pedals, to the point where highlight “You Satellite” is effectively the first shoegazing song in the Wilco discography.
Following a largely inconsequential introduction track (it doesn’t even segue into the second song), the album’s first few songs settle into a fuzzy groove starting with the cool and laid back “More…”
“Random Name Generator” is just as fuzzy as the tracks surrounding it, but it’s also one of the catchiest songs on the set. One of the best straight pop-rockers the band has ever done, with a distinct 70s throwback melody that owes a little bit to T. Rex. While the idea of Jeff Tweedy channeling Marc Bolan in any way seems odd on paper, on record it works fantastically.
The slightly twangy “The Joke Explained” is followed by the aforementioned gauzy, nearly-shoegaze monster “You Satellite,” a song that the wooly nature of the first few tracks seemed to be building towards. The song’s winding, slow build bares some surface resemblance to “Reservations,” the final cut off the band’s career high water mark/albatross Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “You Satellite” is astonishing, and is perhaps one of the band’s best songs. It builds into this final crescendo that seems like it’s going to end in a crashing wave of noise…but before it gets there, it folds back in on itself and fades. That crest marks the end of a terrific, thematic progression through the record’s first few cuts.
The back half of Star Wars isn’t as united as the first four songs, right from track five. “Taste the Ceiling” lacks the fuzzed-out guitar and is nearly acoustic. The song’s folky elements hearken back to the band’s alt-country beginnings. It’s an intriguing switch-up: four tracks of shaggy fuzztone guitar rock followed by a dreamy, quiet country song with actual steel pedal guitar. It definitely works to the band’s advantage that this doesn’t seem to be jarring.
What does seem jarring is the sudden return of the distortion pedals on the following track “Pickled Ginger.” That song, drumless for the first minute or so, has a bit of a glammy strut that at times recalls Eagles of the Death Metal. It doesn’t really fit too well with the tracks that it surrounds and doesn’t seem to really go anywhere. It still fits the low-key nature of the record, but it’s one song that seems a little extemporaneous, and especially because it’s followed by another country-ish track.
That song, “Where Do I Begin,” is an alt-country ballad that is just Tweedy and his guitar before the rest of the band kick in at the two minute mark. The record’s thematic distortion is slightly present, but what makes this track noteworthy is the presence of one of Nels Cline’s lilting, pretty guitar solos for the first time on the record. If you’re like me and think that Cline’s long solo on “Impossible Germany” off Sky Blue Sky is one of the greatest moments in the band’s discography, this is something you’ve been waiting for while listening to this album. It’s a brief one, but it’s as striking as his solos always are.
Following the nearly funky and occasionally heavy “Cold Slope,” the last two songs on the record are even more low-key that the rest of the record. “King of You” is the last gasp of the record’s fuzzbox sound, while atmospheric closer “Magnetize” first relies on only a droning Moog before drums and piano come in. “Magnetize” is starkly different from anything on the album. Just as “You Satellite” recalls a YHF song, this one recalls that record’s opener, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” It’s a quiet way to end a record so dominated by skronky guitar jabs, but it works quite well.
This album feels less like follow-up to The Whole Love than it does like a spiritual successor to Sukierae by the offshoot band Tweedy, which at times also had a pedal-heavy sound. Much of what makes this album great is its no-frills production from Tweedy and his longtime collaborator Tom Schick, which was also one of the many reasons why that Tweedy record was surprisingly superb.
Star Wars is one of the band’s finest moments and is fantastic as an album experience. One of the drawbacks of a big name band releasing an album for free is that, at times, it seems gimmicky (again, especially if you’re U2). However, Star Wars never seems that way and is sure to be a treat to the band’s long time fans.
Wilco’s undeserved late career label as a “dad rock” band has scared off some from paying attention to their often quite terrific recent records, but Star Wars is absolutely worth the time of the casual rock fan intrigued by a major band dropping a new album for free. The album is one of the year’s best surprises, and hopefully a certain other thing with the same name that’s coming out in December can live up to it.