Wilco’s switcheroo with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has become the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll lore, as it should be. Selling an album back to the company that paid you to make it in the first place seemed like a long-awaited comeuppance for conglomerate-owned labels and pretty much set the tone for music-biz chicanery in the 2000s. Less legendary but perhaps even more important is what Wilco did next: They streamed their new album for free on their website. At the time it was shocking: No one will buy the album, naysayers neighed, if they’ve already heard it. But the strategy ultimately worked: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot not only was the band’s best-selling album to date, but it cemented Wilco’s reputation as one of post-9/11 America’s most relevant and perhaps most important bands.
Fourteen years later, Wilco have taken the next logical step. They’ve released their ninth album for free on that same website. It’s been done before, of course, but outside of mixtapes, experimental one-offs, and pay-what-you-will outliers, few gratis albums have been quite as high-profile as Star Wars. No one will buy the album, said exactly nobody, because nobody buys albums in 2014. Although it no longer seems like such a reckless commercial strategy, it may prove both smart and prescient for a band still touring heavily and for an industry still adapting to new technology. For one thing, the vinyl edition is slate for a fall release, which means Star Wars ought to be fresh in critics’ minds and high on year-end lists. For another, it churns up some excitement for a band that hasn’t been exciting for a while now.
From its first discordant chords, Star Wars reintroduces a band that is toying with its own legacy. “EKG” is one minute, 15 seconds of jagged guitar notes, and on top of that it’s called “EKG.” It plays like a pretty withering parody of the migraine-soundtracking guitar spazz-outs that all but defined their 2004 album a ghost is born. Once the actual songs kick in, Wilco sound spryer, looser, livelier, wittier, and more fun than they have in years. And when was the last time anyone used “fun” to describe this serious band?
As early as 1997’s Being There, they’ve trafficked in major statements and event albums, as though their job demanded a certain gravity. As Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting has grown less linear and more impressionistic, the former alt-country band’s sound has expanded to encompass sounds and styles once relegated to the avant-garde margins: drone, motorik beats, distortion, dissonance, musique concrète. Even when they dug into sunny ‘60s pop on Summerteeth or toyed with in-joke self-referentiality on Wilco (The Album), the results were never what you would call light-hearted.
Star Wars incorporates all of that into its 10 songs (nine, if you discount “EKG”), yet the results are somehow much different. They make “tossed-off” and “slight” sound like the utmost virtues, and most of these songs sound like they were recorded in real time, a handful musicians gathered in a circle at Pieholden Suite in Chicago. “More…” and “Pickled Ginger” are loose in a way that sounds unrehearsed, with the rhythm section recalling the slack dynamic of early Pavement. They play with the tenacity of teenagers in the garage, and Tweedy even sounds slightly stoned on “The Joke Explained,” as though he’s slightly suspicious of the very lyrics he’s penned.
Perhaps that pricetag isn’t a business strategy at all, but an extension of the album’s deepest concerns: a means of reinforcing its themes of distraction and creativity. From its meme-derived cover to its pop-cultural album title (Star Wars is apparently an obscure ‘70s sci-fi flick, but there’s not much on the web about it), this is a record about the nature of art—or, more precisely, about the petty distractions that cloud our brightest ideas and our closest relationships. Even the breeziest songs are shot through with a jittery unease, as though language might fail Tweedy at any minute. “Here, lonely in the coldest night,” he muses over the caffeinated industrial groove of “Random Name Generator.” “Somebody hold me in the diamond light. A narrator. Mr. Narrator.”
In other words, Jeff Tweedy is Jeff Tweedy’s best creation—or at least his most lifelike. Star Wars might sound too clever by half if a.) he didn’t take such obvious joy in the act of creation, and b.) he hadn’t been couching his songs in domestic and professional life for years now, even decades. Wilco’s two favorite subjects are what it means to be in a band and what it means to be in a family—and sometimes even Tweedy himself can’t tell the difference between them. Listening to Star Wars is a bit like dropping in on familiar characters, the “you” sounding like a family member or bandmate.
Especially on the second half of the album, Tweedy sounds wistful and resigned as he addresses the people in his life. “We’re so alone, we’re never alone,” he sings on “Where Do I Begin,” his voice sounding raw and ragged. “Why can’t I say something to make you well?” It’s hard to hear that line and not think of Tweedy’s wife, Susan Miller, and her recent diagnosis of lymphoma. And yet, Wilco always withhold much more than they divulge, so the line hangs in the air, never quite settled or specific. That sense of life being just beyond his control lends the album an unexpected emotional heft, which keeps you listening over and over, trying to unlock the essential mysteries of this curious little album.