By Reece McCormack
Wilco’s Stars Wars came out of nowhere in July 2015, bookending the longest studio hiatus of the alt-country collective’s career. The album appeared without warning as a free download on the band's website one unassuming summer morning, begging the question: Why?
As their first LP in four years, Star Wars is exactly the kind of biting, explosive, still-got-it record an alt-rock band dreams of. So where was the fanfare? Why not sound the trumpets? Did they wish to shock the fanbase, dropping the album with the power of a naval mine in a stagnant lake? Were they simply following promotional trends? This was 2015, after all, and dropping surprise albums was the in-thing amongst high-profile acts like Beyonce, Drake and U2. Did the decision result from the same spiky irreverence that led the band to choose that album cover with that title? (A choice I can only conclude was a product of the record’s “Random Name Generator.”) Or was it simply, as Tweedy claimed, because they “felt like it would be fun”?
My personal theory, while accepting that a composite of all of the above is likely true, is this: Star Wars sounds like the work of a new band recording their debut album. The record opens with the jagged, stop-start guitar freakout “EKG,” whose naval mine→stagnant lake metaphor is surprisingly apt. It's a sudden seismic blast of energy whose waves expand supersonically outwards over the rest of the tracklist. In place of the musical precision and detailed song craft fans have come to expect from Wilco, the songs here punch in and out with gusty high-velocity. The band is too frenzied to care about the smaller details, reminiscent of an excited garage band who have struck that giddy, boiling-kettle moment where the songs just start to pour out - perhaps the strongest compliment that can be bestowed upon a band who have been recording since the early ‘90s.
And in the vein of new bands, Wilco present an unobscured sound collage of their musical references that bursts with the easy charm of a group having fun by paying homage. The fuzzed-out guitar licks that dominate Star Wars suggest a modern-day T. Rex - at least one who learnt to experiment with noise. The influence of that band’s Marc Bolan can especially be heard on the romping, “Telegram Sam”-esque “Random Name Generator,” the “Chariot Choogle” beat of “King of You” and “Pickled Ginger,” which bubbles along with a restrained, shadowy energy before spilling over in a violent, warbling whirlpool of guitar and keys. There’s also the breezy, Dylan-esque vocals of the “The Joke Explained” and the grand musical scope of “You Satellite,” which calls to mind the likes of Godspeed! You Black Emperor.
This is not to say that Star Wars ever sounds like anything other than a Wilco album. The band have proven time and time again that they are nothing if not sonic experimenters, from the unexpected brass coda of Summerteeth's “Pieholden Suite” to the clattering soundscape of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” If the discordant sonics of 2004's A Ghost is Born ride neatly into its melodies, on Star Wars they explode from the start like colliding spacecrafts (so maybe there is something to the title after all?). It is in this collision, this messy free-wheeling, don’t-think-too-hard-about-it disposition that the band might have created their best rock album.
And it is from the sonic blast of Star Wars that Wilco emerge sounding brand new.
Reece McCormack is a writer based in Gloucestershire, England. His fiction has recently appeared in recent editions of Carve and New England Review.