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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Album review: Wilco’s Star Wars is good, but not their greatest

Released as a surprise free download, Wilco's ninth album ranks among the most uncomplicated, easily gratifying work of the band's storied, two-decade career.
Wilco’s Nels Cline, left, and Jeff Tweedy at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in April.  AP Photo
Wilco’s Nels Cline, left, and Jeff Tweedy at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in April. AP Photo

Star Wars

Wilco

dPbm

Three stars

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.

rgarratt@thenational.ae