Wilco- Star Wars
Wilco, the critically-acclaimed and two-decade-long running band, pulled a Beyoncé and surprise-released their first record in four years — for free. A free, unannounced album, named Star Wars, with a cat on the cover that clocks in at just under 35 minutes, their shortest record to date, doesn’t exactly make for high expectations—or perhaps it’s just a sign that listeners are in for something new.
The opener, a jarring, experimental instrumental titled “EKG,” is certainly proof of that. After a stretch of pleasing and accessible, but overly-polished “Wilco being Wilco” albums, “EKG” is a welcome exploration into the unknown. The same sense of freshness carries through on the Beatles-esque “More…,” before lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s words are overtaken by diluted sound and static, giving way to the catchy and driving “Random Name Generator,” which seems destined to fall into line among other well-loved Wilco classics. Right down to the name, the album’s inarguable gem “You Satellite” reaffirms all this album is. It soon explodes into a two-minute experimentation, serving as an apt centerpiece for the album, before transitioning to “Taste the Ceiling,” the most classically Wilco song of the record. Lyrically and musically, this song is nothing new for the band, but Tweedy offers up one of the most thoughtful lines of the album: “Why do our disasters creep so slowly into view?” — a revelation that would be right at home on any of Wilco’s recent releases. The angsty, punk rock of “Pickled Ginger” is contrasted by one of the more heartfelt tracks on the album, “Where Do I Begin.” Amid his seemingly existential struggle, Tweedy drawls, “We’re so alone / We’re never alone,” echoing the heart-wrenching juxtaposition in Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You In The End,” in which Johnston sings, “Don’t be sad / I know you will.” In a one-song-in-two move similar to 1996’s Being There’s “Red-Eyed and Blue” / “I Got You (At the End of the Century),” Star Wars’ punchy “Cold Slope” leads seamlessly to “King of You.” However, on a note quite different from the rest of this fun, laid-back album, Star Wars closes with the hazy, dreamlike melancholy of “Magnetized,” in which Tweedy complains, “Everyone wastes my time,” only to counter it with a seemingly sweet confession of attraction: “I realize we’re magnetized.”
“I’m more moved by the maybe,” Tweedy sings on “You Satellite.” That certainly seems to be true, as Wilco is at its best when they’re exploring the unknown and experimenting with something new. They do just that on Star Wars, making it their most interesting and fully satisfying album in years.
Jason Isbell- Something More Than Free
Jason Isbell, a master storyteller Ryan Adams called “the best songwriter I know,” is back with his fifth solo record, Something More Than Free, the follow up to his breakthrough 2013 album, Southeastern. Fresh out of rehab, Southeastern was a dark and intimate picture of Isbell’s struggles with addiction and recovery. However, three years sober and expecting his first child with his wife, Something More chronicles a hopeful and confident Isbell, one who is looking up and forward. The stark contrast between the somber tone of Southeastern and the hopefulness that defines Something More is most apparent on the pleasing, upbeat, but stylistically familiar opener, “If It Takes a Lifetime,” where Isbell’s character confesses he “can’t recall a day when [he] didn’t wanna disappear,” but “keep[s] on showing up, hell-bent on growing up.” A willingness to leave the past in the past is readily apparent on “How To Forget”: “I was strained / I was sad / Didn’t realize what I had / It was years ago / Teach me how to forget.” Not an easy line to pull off without sounding fake, Isbell does more than manage with his newfound self-assurance. Despite its brighter overtones, a certain poignancy still manages to weave its way through the track, especially on one of the hardest hitting lines of the album: “Now that I’ve found someone who makes me want to live, does that make my leaving harder to forgive?” Although the album carries a general sense of positivity and optimism, Isbell’s darker thoughts still surface. On the 90’s influenced “24 Frames,” where Isbell wrestles with the bleaker side of philosophy and theology: “You thought God was an architect / Now you know, He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” The heartbreaking “Speed Trap Town” explores the pains of life on the road. On one of the album’s most personal tracks, “Children of Children,” Isbell confronts a life-long feeling of regret surrounding the fact that his mother had him at a very young age: “I was riding on my mother’s hip / She was shorter than the corn / All the years I took from her just by being born.” Not only a high point for Isbell as a songwriter, “Children of Children” also gives his band, The 400 Unit, a chance to shine on a nearly three-minute jam. Never before have they sounded stronger.
A successful follow-up to an album praised as the highlight of one’s career is no easy task, but Isbell does just that on his latest record. Something More is a notable release and a promising sign of what’s to come — the beginning of a new, brighter chapter for both Isbell and his songwriting, an incredibly talented songwriter finally coming into his own. “I don’t think on why I’m here, where it hurts / What I’m working for is something more than free,” Isbell belts out on the record’s title track. Now, free from his alcoholism and past struggles, and happily married with a child on the way, it looks like Isbell is well on his way to “something more.”
Mac DeMarco- Another One
25-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter Mac DeMarco has been the center of indie-rock/pop adoration since his 2014 hit album Salad Days. Known for his brevity, DeMarco’s latest, Another One, is his shortest release yet, a 23 minute, eight song journey through relationship missteps, heartbreak and self-doubt. Other than some keyboard exploration scattered throughout the album, thematically, lyrically and musically, this is classic Mac. In an attempt to create what DeMarco has called a universally acceptable, or at least universally relatable, album, he has crafted a collection that includes some of the best works of his career. With direct lyrics and an addictive guitar solo, DeMarco reaches new heights on the immediate hit, “The Way You’d Love Her.” “Come on give this lover boy a try / I’ll put the sparkle right back in your eyes / What could you lose,” DeMarco, always a heartthrob, teases on the memorable “No Other Heart.” The irresistible chorus and progression of “A Heart Like Hers” makes it another standout, along with the beach jam atmosphere of “I’ve Been Waiting for Her.” However, despite its multitude of successes, the album’s central selling point — “something for everyone” mini pop — also turns out to be the album’s downfall, coming off as routine and ordinary at times. The trippy, funky, but overly repetitive “Just To Put Me Down” — “a grumpier love [song],” in DeMarco’s words — is easily forgettable, and although a strikingly beautiful song, “Without Me” falls to the background in comparison to other tracks on the album.
Although it features some of his strongest and catchiest songs, Another One feels overly familiar. But that’s not to say DeMarco’s latest is not good; it is quite good, and if nothing else, it is certainly his most concise, refined and introspective release to date.
by Eli Frank