Album of the Week: Wilco, 'Star Wars'

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Wilco
Wilco - Star Wars (Courtesy of ANTI- Records)

Wilco's newest album, Star Wars, is a rarity amongst Wilco albums in that it seems to actively shy away from analysis or deeper meaning. Whereas previous records have allowed ample opportunities for discussion, Star Wars is content to simply exist. When we look backwards through the history of popular music, most artists have one or two albums that have no imprint on popular culture, and their merits are largely as a reference point around other, better records by those artists. Rather than allowing history to dictate the canonical status of a particular album, Wilco have jumped in front of their audience to present an album where the stakes are so low, it starts to look like an admirable accomplishment.

As radio hosts, we are always thinking of the best context for playing new music alongside older music, whether as influences or as sonic peers. The example that keeps coming to mind when I play the songs of Star Wars is the Velvet Underground: VU had a gift for making their music sound loose and spontaneous, as if someone pressed "record" and the band cranked out the recording in one take. Star Wars has that same feel, from the guitar tuneup of "EKG" to the demo-like quality of "Pickled Ginger," both of which sound like lost outtakes from the VU's album of lost outtakes, VU. One noteworthy track is the lovely "You Satellite," which meanders on a "Pale Blue Eyes"-like path; while immediately striking, it may also include additional layers of buried mystery.

Wilco seem to draw heavily from a few of their own previous recordings in search of the sound of Star Wars. On their 2011 album The Whole Love, they included a snappy pop song, "Standing O," which looked then as a promising potential road map for the band. That same snappiness appears on Star Wars tracks like "Random Name Generator" and "King of You," albeit with slightly diminished returns from "Standing O."

When I reviewed Tweedy's Sukierae album last year, I noted that many songs seemed like an opportunity for Jeff Tweedy to clear some space out of his notebook, and while there's still that sense while listening to this new Wilco album, the band attach minor touches to each song to make them feel unique and distinctive, as opposed to the eye-glazing uniformity of Sukierae.

It speaks to the nature of Star Wars that for a band whose career has included many totemic peaks, the influences I mention are a late-period obscurity and a solo record. If anything, though, it indicates to me that the band are no longer under the pressure to create a lasting work. One of my pet peeves is when a reviewer labels a new album as "transitional," as if he or she can tell exactly where this album will sit when judged against the rest of the discography. Wilco have slyly forced our hand, controlling the narrative of Star Wars from the start — all that's left for us to do is listen, and enjoy.

Audience ratings for this album


Among The Current's listeners who submitted a rating for this album, 57 percent of them gave it 5 out of 5 stars. Poll closed at 12 noon on Friday, Aug. 28.

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