Sunday, July 26, 2015

Wilco's Star Power

The pre-order. The Deluxe Edition. The leaked track. The video. The Super-Deluxe Limited Edition. The website landing page. The merch. As susceptible as I am to the Pavlovian triggers of the modern album release scaffold, I do sometimes wonder if the gilding drips off the lily and forms a cage for the artist. It may be, in fact, that all of these extras are better suited to works that are already solidly canonized - go to town, Jimmy Page - but can be a drag on the ascent of a band's new music.

Wilco were solidly on that path with their last two or three albums - I have the Deluxe Editions to prove it - but have ditched it all with their new album, Star Wars, which was released as a free download with no advance warning about a week ago. Why? Wilco main man Jeff Tweedy has the answer: "Well, the biggest reason, and I'm not sure we even need any others, is that we thought it would be fun."

Remember fun? Gaiety can be in short supply when a band is 20 years into their career, which may be why it's been four years since Wilco's last album and why they spent the last couple of years in a semi-atomized state, with each member pursuing outside interests. But whatever the trajectory that led us here, there is new music from Wilco, which is always worth celebrating.

EKG kicks off the 11-song album with a short sharp shock to the system, a dissonant and dense little instrumental overture to what lies ahead. Which is More..., a fuzzed-out rocker with a touch of Glam. Nels Cline's guitar sparkles for just a second or two and there's a great moment when the rhythm guitars nearly drown everything out - more, indeed.

Random Name Generator is a romp, with a joyful riff and some Pere Ubu-esque electronics buried in the mix. An instant live favorite, no doubt. The Joke Explained is the sound of a band with the entire history of American music at their disposal, as echoes of folk, country, Chess Records, and 70's rock blend effortlessly. "If I had known, I would've never believed," Tweedy sings - and haven't we all been there?

You Satellite quiets things down to a slow burn and confirms that in the production and the arrangements, Star Wars is the most unified Wilco album since A Ghost Is Born over a decade ago. The three guitars of Tweedy, Patrick Sansone and Nels Cline create a beautiful sound, blending together in a thicket of sound bolstered by Mikael Jorgensen's electronics while the rhythm section of John Stirratt and Glenn Kotche cooks up a storm, six people playing as one. Clearly a Wilco classic from the first listen and maybe proof positive of the benefits of spending time apart.

"Why do our disasters creep so slowly into view?" Tweedy sings in the low key Taste The Ceiling, and wouldn't we all like to know? Like that line, the song seems to ask more questions than it answers, providing solace via its detailed arrangement and comforting backbeat. Pickled Ginger begins with guitar so blissfully fuzzy that it could be called furry, and more than a touch of T-Rex to the melody. Although it builds up a head of steam near the end, it's more like a sketchy Marc Bolan outtake than a jukebox single, but it's that tossed off quality that has you hitting repeat as soon as it ends.

Where Do I Begin also feels a bit like a demo for the first two minutes or so, with Tweedy accompanied only by two guitars. But then the backwards drums and bold George Harrison riffs burst in and you know you're listening to a fully finished product - and a damned good one at that. Cold Slope comes together with some fragmentary guitar and a druggy pulse before opening up into a rhapsodic section that ends as quickly as it began. The pulse returns, growing into something more rocked out before cutting back down again. Tweedy murmurs, the guitars converse and there is sense of expanded possibility. Verse/chorus/verse? Sure, but you don't have to all the time.

The pulse of Cold Slope leads directly into the stomp of King Of You, which sometimes threatens to become that old favorite I'm The Man Who Loves You, but they rein it in. Album closer Magnetized explores some of the melodic and sonic terrain of the later Beatles while remaining resolutely Wilco. It's an introspective gem that may be an ode to the band's inner magnetism, which keeps them together through thick and thin, or to the attraction that keeps us fans of the band tuned in to their every move. Either way, it's beautiful, a quiet little anthem and a perfect ending to what begins as a delightful surprise and becomes gradually more nuanced. And you know what? If they put out a Star Wars Death Star Super Deluxe Limited Edition with extra songs as good as these, sign me up for the pre-order.

 You might also enjoy:

The Wilco Diaspora, Part 1

The Wilco Diaspora, Part 2: Tweedy & Son

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