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Wilco‘s new album leaked yesterday, a month and a half ahead of its release date—which actually isn’t bad, considering the band’s last two albums leaked two months prematurely, and the one before that slipped out nine months earlier than planned. But album leaks don’t seem to piss off frontman Jeff Tweedy nearly as much as audience members chatting during live shows or band members asking for backpay, and Wilco reacted coolly by streaming the whole album on its Web site. (Link after jump…)

The album is self-titled, a tactic usually employed by new bands looking to optimize name recognition. For a deeply established band like Wilco, it may be more of an affirmation. Some have noted that this album marks a return to the playfulness of the band’s earlier records. On this reading, the decision to call the album Wilco might have been an attempt by the band to reclaim this identity: We are Wilco, this is what we sound like. The opening track, also called “Wilco,” is less a song than a mission statement:

Are you under the impression
this isn’t your life?
Do you dabble in depression?
Is someone twisting a a knife in your back?
Are you being attacked?
This is a fact you need to know (oh, oh, oh, oh):
Wilco’ll love you baby

I am reluctant to call the new record “playful,” insofar as I am reluctant to force-fit any album—least of all one by so manic-depressive a band as Wilco—into the confines of a solitary adjective. Playfulness is certainly an ingredient in Wilco. (One might infer this from the album’s cover—a Bactrian camel presiding over a rooftop cakewalk). But there are also plenty of melancholy slide howls, laid-back grooves, and at least one high-distortion noise tantrum.

What most struck me was not Wilco‘s buoyancy, but its sense of zen-like calm. “You Never Know” is an epistemological critique of the vanity of each generation that assumes it is the endpoint of history. “You and I,” a pleasant little duet with Feist, reflects on lovers’ inability to know each other’s true depths, while “Country Disappeared” professes that it doesn’t matter because we’re all we’ve got regardless. “Solitaire” acknowledges the folly of pretense, which leaves Tweedy free to un-self-consciously conclude, in the final track, that love is everlasting. He plays like a man who has taken stock of life’s uncomely truths and made peace with them. If Wilco comes off as playful, that may be the reason why.

Anyway, these are first impressions. I may have more to say once the album and I become more intimately acquainted. In the meantime, have a listen for yourself.