At this point, there are a lot of Wilco albums, and as you may or may not recall, I have listened to all of them. And since I’d still say Wilco hasn’t ever put a bad album, when a new one comes out, it’s always more of a question of whether it falls into the category of a really good Wilco album or just a pretty good Wilco album. Because let’s face it, the idea of a great Wilco album hasn’t ever really seemed like a possibility since the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album that isn’t quite my absolute favorite album of the ’00s, but there could definitely be a case made for it. But what I think makes a great Wilco album or even a really good Wilco album all has to do with how this band manages to balance the two seemingly contradictory traits that have often defined them. This duality I’m talking about is the eternal struggle between Pretty/Pleasant Wilco and Weird Wilco.
The best Wilco albums, like the aforementioned Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as well as 1999’s Summerteeth, and even their last album, 2011’s really good The Whole Love, find the band seamlessly interweaving Pretty/Pleasant Wilco and Weird Wilco. The band’s latest, which was surprise-released a couple weeks ago seems to decidedly fall into the Weird Wilco side of the spectrum, considering it feels uncharacteristically tossed-off, due to it being released on a whim and the fact that it’s a 33 minute album called Star Wars with a friggin’ cat on the cover. Also, the album begins with perhaps the most abrasive song in Wilco’s catalogue, the 1 minute 16 second crunchfest that is “EKG”. It then eases into the somewhat Pretty/Pleasant track “More…”, before we then get another one of the heavier Wilco songs in existence with “Random Name Generator”, though the song’s fuzz is complemented quite nicely by Jeff Tweedy’s innate ability to craft a nice hook without making a big deal of it.
But the more I listen to Star Wars (yeah, I still haven’t quite gotten used to that album title), I’m finding that P/P Wilco is more than present throughout this album that might at first seem like a radical left turn. Slower ballads like “Taste The Ceiling” and “Where Do I Begin” feel a bit like Wilco songs I’ve heard before, which might sound like a criticism, but the way in which Jeff Tweedy writes songs that have such a familiar, classic-sounding sense of Americana is always welcome to me. And maybe that’s why Star Wars (yup, I’m just gonna say that that’s a bad album title) feels exactly like the kind of record a band of Wilco’s veteran stature should be making. It has lots of traces of the band we’ve been listening to for all these years, and yet I can’t say there’s ever quite been a Wilco album like it. They’ve always been a band who’ve leaned into perfectionism and complicated albums that tend to run a bit long (as evidenced by their sophomore album being a double LP released during the CD era). But here we get a Wilco that’s a bit looser and a bit more willing to indulge it’s stranger urges, and yet nonetheless has a kind of confidence in its songs that can only come from years of doing it. Ain’t nothing weird about that.
Favorite Tracks: “More…”, “Random Name Generator”, “Where Do I Begin”