by Erik Ritland
Rambling On is a seriously fun blog and podcast covering sports, music, culture, and more. Check us out on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, or at our website.
Star Wars (dBpm 8/21/2015)
Essential tracks: "More...," "Random Name Generator," "Where Do I Begin," "Magnetize"
Wilco hasn’t made a satisfying album since A Ghost is Born. There are some great moments on Sky Blue Sky, and instrumentally they’ve never been tighter, but Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting just hasn’t been that inspiring. Especially on their last two releases, Wilco (The Album) and The Whole Love.
More than simply a return to form for the band, Star Wars is also a revitalization of the album format. Fuzzed out riffs, layers of keyboards, and plenty of old school synths give it a strong overall harmony. Sonically it's warm and consistent, each track flowing into the next a la Sgt. Pepper. At just over 30 minutes it’s the perfect length, making it easy to go back to and really absorb. It’s the sort of album that bands used to come out with twice a year, and still could if the creativity and ambition were still there.
Catchy, melodic “More…” and “Random Name Generator” find the band at their poppiest and most Beatle-esque. Inventive guitar riffs swirl around “The Joke Explained,” an opaque criticism of organized religion (I’m on to you, Tweedy). That’s a strength of Star Wars, though: the songs have a good creative balance between plainness and obscurity, where recent Wilco lyrics have fallen too far into one or the other.
Like classic albums of the ‘60s and ‘70s the sound is consistent even as the band explores different textures and styles (after all, Sgt. Pepper had radically dissimilar songs “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “Within You Without You,” and “When I’m 64” all side by side). Droning “You Satellite” initially seems redundant, but its mix of guitars, keyboards, and noises gets more compelling with each listen. The breezy mix of pop, rock, and country of “Taste the Ceiling” would have fit nicely on A.M. or Being There.
Musically “Pickled Ginger” is one of the most interesting tracks on Star Wars. It is built around distorted, bluesy rhythm guitar and filled out with discordant keyboards and the wildly inventive guitar work of (presumably) Nels Cline. But Tweedy sounds like a bratty teenager when he sings lines like “no one tells me how to behave” and “no one tells me how to be saved.” He’s trying to be rebellious and edgy, I get it, but those types of sentiments have become quite ordinary in our increasingly anti-religious world (especially among musicians, and on the political left in general). It’s also a philosophical non-point, as anything Tweedy believes he absorbed from one source or another, and I doubt he’d argue that there aren’t better and worse ways to behave (or be saved for that matter). Furthermore, if “no one” tells him how to behave that includes himself, and if I take his advice then he can’t tell me how to behave, either – which includes voicing my opinion about what the best and worst ways to behave (or be saved) are.
The last four songs are a mini-suite, something like a more fleshed out “Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” (or a less grandiose “Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight/The End”). It starts, fittingly, with “Where Do I Begin,” which is practically a suite in itself. It moves from an electric folk song with a chord progression reminiscent of Tweedy’s early work in Uncle Tupelo (especially “If that’s Alright”) into foreboding psychedelic rock with fuzzed out guitars and backwards cymbals. Its increasingly off the rails coda leads nicely into “Cold Slope.” Like most songs on Star Wars – and the best art in general – it nicely balances contradictions, its moody feel and warm melody juxtaposed with erratic guitars. This balance, which sometimes borderlines on the best sort of absurdity, pervades every part of the album, even its title and artwork.
“Cold Slope” ends abruptly, leading directly into hypnotic “King of You.” It’s repetitive, but the imaginative riff and heavy fuzzed out guitars make it more interesting than similarly structured “You Satellite.” “Magnetize” closes the album with a small-scale version of itself, a strange psychedelic opening leading into a beautifully melodic, piano-led ballad with more layers fuzz guitar.
With Star Wars, Jeff Tweedy’s band has reached a transcendence that it hasn’t come close to since A Ghost is Born. An album for people who love albums, its appeal will grow as listeners and critics get more time to absorb it.
Erik Ritland is a writer and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. His blog and podcast Rambling On features commentary on music, sports, culture, and more. He was also Lead Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blog Curious North. Support Erik's music via his Patreon account, reach him via email, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.