Wilco – Star Wars
By Jon Hersh
I first heard Wilco on the short-lived HBO series Reverb, which pumped live bands direct to your suburban home every Friday night, no fake ID required. Wilco’s live show was recorded in 1997, three years after starting as a band, and their performance was shaky and wild and their songs were amazing. I remembered none of this. I remembered the deli tray.
At some point in their set, the band pauses and comes to the front of the stage, bearing a surprisingly large deli-tray, presumably brought from backstage and unwanted by the band or its crew. Co-songwriter Jay Bennett says to the audience, “we have to explain the rules of the deli tray game. Anything that we throw out from this lovely deli tray, provided for us by Irving Plaza, can be thrown back at us.” Lead singer Jeff Tweedy hands the impressive tray of meats and cheese to the crowd, and immediately someone jumps up and knocks the tray over, spilling its entire contents to the dirty floor. “It just takes one person to spoil everyone’s fun”, whines Jeff. Wilco, you see, has always wanted to give back to their fans.
On Friday, Wilco gave the Internet and its fans the equivalent of a $99 Deluxe Zabar’s Deli Tray Assortment: a surprise album released for free online. Like everyone else, I assume it was a hoax (note to the band: calling the album “Star Wars” and featuring a cat on the cover does you no favors in this regard.) But I downloaded it anyway, preparing to hear 12 tracks of Jeff Tweedy gargling marbles into a blow dryer — because, hey, you get what you pay for — but after listening I can confirm this is real, really real, real as in the best album Wilco’s released in years.
I’m of course left positing why? Not why release it this way, why call it “Star Wars”, why is *this* their best album. And after pondering over it much longer than a grown man should think about a rock album, I’ve come to conclusion that this is the only way Wilco could have released an album this good, and whether they called it “Pat Sansone Cries Alone” or “Dirty Hippie Thoughts” it would be just as good.
The album opens with the minute and change “EKG”, which is appropriately named, and sounds like the sputtering and starting of a broken EKG at the world’s worst hospital (probably in America. Don’t worry, they take Visa). The second track “More…” reminds you that yes, you are listening to the band that wrote Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and not your cousin’s noise band that have yet to learn their instruments. The third track “Random Name Generator” harkens back to the Thin Lizzy vibe that Wilco seems to court and skirt, revealing that if they weren’t the world’s best rock band, they would be the world’s best cover band. The rest of it is Wilco, not the sad rock Wilco of the past few albums, but the sturm und drang of Wilco past. The drums are front and center (or whatever weird percussion drummer Glen Kotche has dreamed up) mixing with the crunch of the guitars like syrup on hotcakes.
You can see why Wilco needs to release albums like this. As a group they are prone to over-thinking, producing radio-friendly ‘dad-rock’, a moniker that will hound them the rest of their days. Wilco, the band, are a pack of effortlessly talented musicians, able to wring every bit of magic out of the songs that songwriter and singer Jeff Tweedy brings to them. This is evidently present in every live performance I’ve seen them at (at least a dozen and counting), where they are unconstrained by the narrow confines of the recorded medium and the listener’s attention span. This kind of delirious energy is tough to capture on record, and the ups and downs of Wilco’s albums can be charted by their ability to do so: Summerteeth (no), Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (yes), A Ghost is Born (yes), Sky Blue Sky (barely), Wilco (no), The Whole Love (no).
This also isn’t the story of a label trying to dumb down a great band for the paleatteable masses. Their previous label, Nonesuch is home to such crowd-pleasing avant-garde composers as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and seems to operate entirely outside the normal economic dictates of the modern music industry. Since leaving that label they’ve started their own, dBpm, who presumably have little corporate control over their product. None of this pressure to produce a record that connects with its fans is coming from the top down, all of it is rising internally from the band, and likely Jeff Tweedy himself. “Here’s a song that should have made a million dollars,” Tweedy once opined while introducing “Heavy Metal Drummer” off of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot at a concert in Milwaukee I attended in the early 2000s. Unbeknownst to me, “Heavy Metal Drummer” was supposed to be their ‘hit’, but I along with everyone I knew found it plainly boring. You could just see Jeff in the control room, tweaking the dials, wondering how much of Wilco’s weirdness was the right amount to let through: too much and the Starbucks crowd will get turned off, too little and their music loses its voodoo and devolves into boring, sad radio rock. “People really want to watch the band fall apart”, says Tweedy during the post-deli incident interview on Reverb. Of course we do, because at this point in your career we understand you better than you understand yourselves: only when you are off-kilter are you great.
There is no alchemy to producing a great Wilco track. The right amount of Wilco weirdness is all of it, right from the Marshall stacks, through Nel’s Cline’s labyrinthique pedalboard straight into your gaping ear. This kind of creativity can’t come from any machine, even one as amenable as the musician’s label of dBpm. It has to come from Wilco themselves, and Tweedy and co. have to internalize this to produce and album this good. Keep Wilco weird. Star Wars forever.
Stream it: God Yes
Buy it on CD: Impossible for now
Buy it on Vinyl: Probably, eventually
Perfect time to listen: There is no wrong time