Wilco stunned the music world with the surprise release of their ninth studio album, Star Wars, a few weeks ago. While we have seen some of the biggest pop stars on the planet undertake this kind of gambit (such as Beyonce and U2), it did not seem to be the kind of maneuver that the normally staid indie rock darlings would attempt. However, the casual nature of the album’s release serves Star Wars well, as it fits the easy-going mood of the material; freed from the anxiety that comes with the build-up and anticipation of months of promotion, Wilco sounds as loose as it has ever been, and the result is the perfect album for a lazy summer afternoon.
Wilco reached their greatest commercial success with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, albums that were intricately composed and fussily produced, but there has always been a part of the band’s identity that pushed back against that instinct and ease up a bit. Jeff Tweedy most recently indulged in that tendency with his Tweedy side project he put out last year with his son, but unlike Sukirae or Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, the looseness of Star Wars is based more on having fun than simple relaxation. Even on moments like the sweet “Where Do I Begin”, the band is not afraid of blowing up a lovely ballad to explode in a noisy and triumphant finish.
In a stark contrast with the multi-part layered epics on The Whole Love, the music on Star Wars is stripped down to its basic elements, with songs rarely stretched beyond three minutes. Guitars with a touch of fuzz distortion dominate the sound, with multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone making it a three-guitar attack for most of the record. The shift in approach creates a sharper and more rocking feel to the album, which is apparent on such songs as “More…” and “Random Name Generator”. The downside is that Mikael Jorgensen’s keyboards are often lost in the shuffle and minimized for the most part, save for a key role in shaping the closer “Magnetized”.
As a gift to fans, Star Wars is a perfect treat. Those that longed for the carefree days of the early years circa Being There should be more than satisfied with the album, and those that appreciate the knottier and denser material can appreciate cuts like “You Satellite” that stand out after repeated listens. Though there were many that took advantage of the generous free download opportunity, most will certainly feel compelled enough to give their thanks by purchasing the album when it goes on sale in the near future.
As for the mystery behind the title and the goofy cover art? Jeff Tweedy can only respond, “I cry at the joke explained.”