I’m home from work, my other work that isn’t writing about Rock & Roll, mindlessly scrolling through my sites while mindlessly watching something on TV (I might as well multi-task, right?). I guess it doesn’t really matter that I was wearing my Wilco twentieth anniversary t-shirt, but I was. I scrolled through Facebook, and noticed that they had changed their profile photo to their name in a font resembling the Coca-Cola logo. I got really excited and turned to Naseema, my girlfriend, mindlessly scrolling through something on her phone, and said, “Wilco changed their profile picture, I bet they’re going to announce an album.”
I clicked on the photo, and there was a new post updated: “Just Now.” Containing this message: “Why release an album this way and why make it free? Well, the biggest reason, and I’m not sure we even need any others, is that it felt like it would be fun. What’s more fun than a surprise?” My voice got louder: “Wilco just released a new album, just now, and it’s free, and it’s called Star Wars, and there’s a cat.” And we both set out to download the new, free album like kids opening their Christmas presents.
The songs come and go before you can really latch on to them, forcing repeated listenings, compared to songs like “At Least That’s What You Said,” which sticks in your heart as a barb you won’t ever be able to get out. At this point, a little less than one week later, I’m at ten listens through and not nearly done digesting this.
What unfolded over a very brief thirty-three minutes was a contraction of everything Wilco has sought to be since late 1999. Every album up to this point was predicated on Pascal’s corollary—“I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short”—but this was all Carver and Hemingway. Heavily condensed, yet expansive, following the footprint of bands like X and The Replacements who offered depth instead of length.
Most obviously, Jeff Tweedy has followed the singular pattern of his career, Inspiration & Execution. Uncle Tupelo was a direct influence on A.M. Loose Fur on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And now Tweedy, his band with son Spencer, has directly influenced Star Wars. Except for the first album, he seems to need draw out ideas on a sketchpad before fully realizing a change in direction. This has caused some pretty drastic changes to the tenor of the current lineup.
Those guys—Nels Cline, Mikael Jorgensen, Pat Sansone, Glenn Kotche, and the only other constant member for the now two decade history of the band John Stirratt—show how versatile they are. Each member except Stirratt was brought on almost specifically for this reason: Kotche on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to live in the song rather than just drum, Jorgensen to create as much sonic space possible and Sansone to be the melodic guy on A Ghost is Born, and Cline to solo all over the place on Sky Blue Sky. Here, they have been boiled to the finest essences of their being, doing in three minutes what used to take them seven.
For Wilco, it’s almost as if they’ve gotten a youthful cockiness to them like a group of twenty-five year-olds naming their album Let It Be. I mean, who names an album Star Wars. This might as well be a punk Wilco, the way the words fall out of Tweedy’s mouth instead of his usual plaintive singing, the arrangements with weird thirds and chord progressions that stray far away from anything a folkie might claim as his own, rampant usage of fuzz pedals. The Whole Love is to Star Wars that Nevermind is to In Utero.
The more I listen to the album though, the more I hear David Bowie (Low, specifically), The Kinks (Muswell Hillbillies), Big Star (Third), and the Beatles; especially John Lennon’s later solo career. Each of these artists at the time of the albums mentioned all began making music for themselves. Bowie was frustrated with terrible contracts, The Kinks were kicked out of America, Alex Chilton was being Alex Chilton, and John Lennon didn’t want to die at forty.
Tweedy is, I’m sure, at the same place in his career. He can comfortably make the music he wants to make without fear of retribution. Unlike his misstep on A Ghost Is Born (He ultimately apologized for the ten minutes of noise on “Less Than You Think” that was supposed to mimic what it was like to have a migraine*), on Star Wars there are no more missteps. There is no explaining to critics choices they’ve made. He can make an album that is unlike anything he’s done, release it for free, put a cat on the cover, name it after the most famous movie series of the last century, and everyone has to accept that this is what Wilco is going to do, because that’s what Wilco does.
The idea of “Free Music” in the 21st century is an oxymoron with streaming, YouTube and, let’s face it, pirating. For Wilco, a victim and pioneer of free music, I feel like it matters more. As they said in an e-mail blast from dBpm Music to those who had downloaded the album: “We consider ourselves lucky to be in the position to give you this music free of charge, but we do so knowing not every band, label or studio can do the same.” They listed about twenty records they think you should “BUY” [emphasis theirs], not just stream or bootleg, but support.
At the end of the day, it’s us Wilco fans, those obsessive fans like myself, the GA fans at the foot of the stage, and the weekend riders that stand to benefit—but only because we’ve supported them for all of these years. Wilco is lucky to have fans like it does that have followed them through every lineup change and every new direction, the highs and the lows. It’s a mutual relationship, and there’s no band that gives back like Wilco does.
So, I think I can speak for all of us when I say thank you for Star Wars. We’ll see you on tour.
*I didn’t always like it, but now I do. Stockholm Syndrome?
Article: Christopher Gilson