Wilco’s new album Star Wars (which has nothing to do with the Lucas franchise and is available for FREE download) makes the best use of their three-guitar lineup so far. To quote an old Tweedy lyric, “Don’t let me be misunderstood.” This isn’t, for my taste, their best album but it is their best guitar album. I recall reading how Kurt Cobain spent three straight hours listening to the same Beatles record before going into the studio to record “About a Girl.” And you could tell. Well I like to imagine that Jeff Tweedy and Neils Cline spent three hours listening to a Sonic Youth album before going into the studio to bang out Star Wars. The album is growing on me more with each listen. And while nothing on Star Wars will get to you quite the way their older and more emotive gems did (“We’re Just Friends” springs to mind) I would argue that this is in fact their most concise record. But before I dig into it, indulge me for a minute and travel back to a specific memory I have associated with Wilco. That’s the beauty of a band you age with: You have memories attached to specific eras of their career.
The first time I heard Wilco was in a movie montage. Wait. Let me start over. The first time I heard Wilco was when I was neurotically rewriting a suicide note — I wanted to get those goddamned final words just right! — and the revisions were interrupted by, well, Girl, Interrupted. I had a TV on in the background with the sound off. It was around 3 am. Winona Ryder’s big brown eyes with their, in this case, detached gaze immediately caught my attention. As did the slow moving camera. There was something ethereal at that hour about that opening scene so I turned the volume up and whisked away from my depression into another world. Another world wrought with its own depression but a cathartic distraction nonetheless. And thus, in that morbid hour, my movie obsession was born.
That fateful moment also led to me discovering one of my top-five Desert Island records because halfway into the film there is a montage. And what band is playing in that montage? You guessed it. Wilco, motherfucker. The montage is set to “How To Fight Loneliness” from the album Summerteeth.
Summerteeth is, hands down, my favorite Wilco album. But the sound of that album isn’t really accurate to their live sound, much in the way Nirvana’s Nevermind is both an astounding album and an inaccurate representation of the band’s live grit. With all that said, Wilco’s newest release, Star Wars, is their In Utero. It goes against the grain of their previous productions, sounding rawer and more off the cuff than ever. And its mere 33-minute length makes it easy for repeat listens. Repeat listens that reveal trademark Tweedy lyrics such as, on “Taste the Ceiling,” the verse that asks “Why do our disasters always creep so slowly into view?”
I have a long history with Wilco. Not every album spoke to me. Some people have accused them of veering into all too comfortable “dad rock” territory in recent years. I was among those cynics. Some of their albums weren’t great and they weren’t bad. Just an all too cozy in between. Star Wars, however, is a breath of fresh air. And not just in terms of the unhinged and clearly not over thought production. It has more in common with In Utero than the lack of polished sheen. It is noisy. Abrasive. In your face. And these are words that, at best, could only describe Wilco in an occasional song. Not an entire album. They’ve always leaned more toward folk rock than punk rock. Until now. “Random Name Generator,” for example, owes more to T. Rex than to Woody Guthrie.
They’ve somehow managed to reinvent their guitar sound while still sounding like Wilco. I think this is largely due to Tweedy’s always recognizable sad-bastard vocal-delivery. Just because his band’s guitars are more distorted than ever doesn’t mean he is going to reinvent his delivery. Remember R.E.M.’s Monster?* The band traded in their jangly-folk vibe for distorted garage rock. But Michael Stipe stayed the same. That’s what’s going on here with the new Wilco. Because when a band becomes fully comfortable in their own shoes, they know what should change and what should stay the same. And that’s the memory I shall have when I fondly look back on the Star Wars release: It was a time in my life in which I too became comfortable in my skin.
Devan T. Penegar
* R.E.M.’s Monster is another top-five Desert Island record of mine.