Let go of the notion that Wilco was ever an innovative, game-changing musical force.
Friends, it’s time to let go of the notion that Wilco was ever an innovative, game-changing musical force. It’s an assertion that has been held by many since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was dropped, leaked and ultimately released in 2002, but that assertion just doesn’t hold water anymore. In fact, if you take the band at their word, they probably don’t buy much into that idea themselves. Their post-Foxtrot work has been more comfortable than challenging, with results that range from quite good (2011’s The Whole Love) to corny (2009’s Wilco (The Album)) to downright embarrassing (2007’s wretched Sky Blue Sky). So let’s not consider their surprise new album, Star Wars, in the same way that we looked at the band’s vital early work. This is, after all, an album made by Wilco the wizened professionals and should be listened to as such—except this is pretty rough going, even with lowered expectations.
Wilco arguably had four years to write, record and fine-tune Star Wars before releasing it on July 16th as a free download, but you wouldn’t gather that from listening to the album. This is a haphazard piece of work, an album made on the fly and off the cuff by a band that seems more interested in playing instruments than they are in writing songs. The album consists mostly of sketches and half-formed ideas that the band seems content to leave unfinished. Some would call it a return to experimentation, but songs like “More…” and “You Satellite” don’t recall the noisier moments of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot so much as they recall more of what we’ve come to expect from this band, just not as good.
If anything, Star Wars shows off the band’s consistency more than their willingness to change things up. The production team remains unchanged from The Whole Love, and the songs maintain that same semi-polished tone that almost ensures that they will pop more in a live setting than they do on the album. Let’s not get our hopes up, though; this isn’t the sort of ragged, live-in-the-studio recording that Wilco made on Being There. Star Wars still exercises an air of polish and restraint, as if the band is ready to start cutting loose but just won’t take that one extra step.
Star Wars only works when Wilco turns down their amps for the ballads. For all of the problems the band has now, they still have a truly great vocalist in Tweedy, who can evoke so many emotions in one performance. On “Taste the Ceiling,” Tweedy’s age works in his favor as he returns to his alt-country roots with a wisdom that only comes with experience. He also takes “Where Do I Begin”—one of Star Wars’ most-underwritten songs—and gives the sort of delicate vocal performance that makes the song memorable and oddly touching. Moments like these serve as a reminder of Wilco at its finest, but they also underscore just how weak Star Wars is.
This, ultimately, is the real problem with Wilco nowadays: this is a talented band that is capable of greatness, but they seem content with just being okay. Having established a legacy, Wilco appear comfortable with just coasting on that legacy, releasing albums only as a reason to book another lucrative tour or to give them a few new things to throw into their set at that year’s Solid Sound. As frustrating a listen as Star Wars is, there’s something inherently cynical that is only underlined by the praise that the album’s been getting. Its pleasures few and its songs slight, Star Wars is the Wilco album that can barely muster the strength to be anything at all. It’s a shame to see a band fall from grace; it’s even worse when they have no intention of picking themselves up again.