Album review: Wilco’s Star Wars is good, but not their greatest
Wilco’s ninth album opens with a red herring – EKG, a 76-second sonic excess of Sonic Youth-lite guitar noise.
There’s more about Star Wars to instantly confound the listener – the title, for one, paired with a cover that features a furry white kitten. What does all this wanton irreverence, from one of America’s best-loved and most-serious bands, mean?
Most confounding of all was Wilco’s decision to “pull-a-Radiohead”, suddenly dropping the album for free online last month. On Friday it gets a proper physical release.
The free pre-release, it turns out, was another smokescreen – this is no indulgent cult favourite. Wrapping in a breezy 34 minutes, Star Wars is Wilco’s most instantly gratifying, uncomplicated album since their 1995 debut, A.M.
Things open properly with a trio of hazy, retro grooves: the warm, big-chorused stomp of More..., the swaggering glam-rock wiggle of Random Name Generator (the ultimate Wilco song-title?), and The Joke Explained, a delightfully off-kilter country-folk ramble. Art-jazz guitarist Nels Cline wilfully peppers, punctuating songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s rhythmic chord cycles with searing, asymmetrical lead lines.
Not everything is so bright. The album’s longest, darkest moment comes with the brooding dirge of You Satellite, which displays a touch of The Jesus and Mary Chain in the way a basic harmonic vamp is imbued with an emotional urgency through a thick layer of fuzz.
The highlights are Where Do I Begin, a subtle, lilting ballad that ranks among Tweedy’s best, and the epic, Beatles-esque crescendo of the closer, Magnetized.
A refreshing live-in-the-studio playfulness reveals itself – the prancing groove of Cold Slope is repeated in King of You, one jam strung together as two halves – a sense of possibility that made Wilco’s seminal work so very potent.
There was a time when Wilco were among America’s most engaging guitar bands. Turn-of-the-millennium classics Summerteeth (1999) and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) were masterpieces of tone, literally and metaphorically, juxtaposing traditional Americana songwriting with artier ornamentations and a sense of generational angst.
After a decade of experimentation, the band’s most recent releases – Sky Blue Sky (2007), Wilco (2009) and The Whole Love (2011) – while brimming with audio treats, have cemented a distinctly safe, satisfying but unsurprisingly “Wilco sound”.
Last year’s 20th anniversary, double-disc best-of What’s Your 20? served to reinforce this idea of a once-towering titan being put out to pasture.
Star Wars represents a welcome reinvigoration, a shaking from the Dad-rock slumber. It sounds, remarkably, like a band still having fun making music.
But after a four-year wait, is it enough? The tiny run-time, whimsical marketing and free release lend this one the sense of an enjoyable stopgap or welcome diversion.
Star Wars offers proof Wilco may have another truly great record in them – but this isn’t quite it.
Updated: August 17, 2015 04:00 AM