The Cool Intelligence Behind Wilco’s Free “Star Wars” Album

So Wilco surprised us all, Christmas in July, with the free download this week of Star Wars.  If the album sucked, it would be a stunt.  Because the album is first rate — stripped down, back to the roots, unpretentious and punk-rock pure — it stands as a marvel.  Let’s think about what they’ve done here, for a moment.

Out of insecurity, corporate hubris, and the sentimental gullibility of a longtime partner, U2 forced upon us whatever it was that album was called that Apple foisted upon our iTunes library last year.  U2 is a much bigger, more successful band than Wilco, at least they have been over time, and out of what Bono admitted was a need on their part to make sure everyone listened to what they still could create, they took a big payment from Apple and all of us woke up to find an album we didn’t ask for hogging bits on our hard drives.  It wasn’t bad, but the manner they forced it on us was so oft-putting, it left a copper and merde taste in everyone’s mouth, save for members of the U2 fan club.  And it backfired perfectly: the album proved that U2 had outlasted its welcome, which was kind of sad.

Wilco is an amazing success story, as an entity.  After living through one of those epic record label disasters that foretold the imminent collapse of the industry — when one unit of Warner Bros. rejected Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, still perhaps their greatest record, only to have it picked up and released by another unit of Warner Bros. — over time, Wilco took complete control of their fate, and as “I Love My Label” attests, they created the only record label they could trust: themselves.  Wilco is an institution, American superstars for lovers of good music.  They treat their fans to live albums downloadable from their website, tour when they wish, host their own festival.  They do everything on their own terms.  But do they still, you know, matter?  Are they still relevant, great?

Star Wars is a really great album, reveling in the guitar-based core of the band.  Whereas on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the band came to us like mysterious radio signals out of the foggy sea, and whereas the most recent The Whole Love sounded like a band that didn’t want to cede the mantle of progressive experimentation to Radiohead — another band that surprises all with free album releases — Star Wars sounds like smart and soulful kids getting together in a studio to have fun.  They just happen to be a magically adept unit, able to turn on a dime, rock harder than bands the age of young Spencer Tweedy, and have a recognizable sound to mine.

We’re grateful to Wilco for the free album, which happens also to be a brilliant career move — a true gift which we can access on our terms, even as they offer it to us on theirs.  We are grateful to Wilco for a whole lot more than this album, but it’s a nice reminder, isn’t it?

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