Review Summary: This is not the Wilco you're looking for.
For all the dad-rock slights they receive, Wilco has always been adept at surprises. One can argue that the band has been mining a particularly refined strain of folk rock since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky
, but the reality is that sequence denoted a deliberate growth that led to perhaps the finest and most complex distillation of the band’s quirky Americana in 2011’s The Whole Love
. It was slow going, yes, but there was a comfort there. Wilco would always be around; Wilco would always drop a reliably great album every few years; Wilco would continue to pull out all the stops in a live show that painted their songs in flames (or whatever you want to call Nels Cline’s guitar playing). Simply put, Wilco would love you, baby. It’s not necessarily true that they needed to drop a free album apropos of nothing, except that it’s 2015 and that’s what artists – particularly artists with the cachet of Wilco – can do. Wilco hasn’t needed to prove anything to anyone in a long, long time.
In its release and its execution, Star Wars
embodies that freedom. This is the sound of a cohesive unit letting it rip in the studio for by far the shortest album of their careers – and not a note is misplaced or wasted, despite how (intentionally) messy it sounds. This kind of focus is not surprising, but the way they go about it certainly is. The guitar – skronking from one direction to the next in “EKG,” running itself ragged along a frantic melody on “Pickled Ginger,” and drunkenly imitating the band’s more classic folk-rock motifs throughout “The Joke Explained” – is the star at war with itself here. Or, more appropriately, stars. The intricate lines weaving throughout “You Satellite” constitute one of the best approximations of live Wilco on record yet, one picking its way up through a sparkling, sleepy dream, another chugging persistently through the dirt in the background, yet another desperately tearing itself apart amid feedback and Glenn Kotche’s calamitous drums. While the guitars maintain a steady, fuzzy presence throughout, it’s the record’s loose vibe that gives Star Wars
its distinctive tossed-off feel. Occasionally this comes at the expense of Jeff Tweedy, whose lyrics are sometimes reduced to “nonsense that happens to sound good.” More often than not it complements his game persona, which here runs the gamut from the venomous “Random Name Generator,” to playful on “Pickled Ginger,” and back to the plaintive, well-worn bummer he assumes on “Taste the Ceiling.”
Of course, calling these songs tossed-off does them a disservice and speaks to Wilco’s imitable ability to craft pop gems that feel like they just ripped them raw out of their studio not five minutes before. The woozy alt-country of “The Joke Explained,” how it nails that balance between a knowing wink and self-loathing pathos with a perfectly concise, cranky guitar motif, makes one wonder how this same band could create some truly bland filler on past albums. “Where Do I Begin” combines a traditionally vulnerable acoustic melody and a painfully honest Tweedy with an outro where the guitars unfurl like frightening birds of prey and Kotche’s drums sound like an avalanche. And while the record loses a bit of steam in its last third with the syncopated combo of “Cold Slope” and “King of You” blending into each other’s angular guitar lines, it ends on just the right note. “Magnetized” is a quiet, melancholy hymn, a gentle swell of keys and backing vocals that stands in stark contrast to everything before it, that inevitable touch of guitar be damned. Its chorus and the bridge that spins out towards space is the most beautiful thing on a grimy, haphazard record that nevertheless has its own allure, unique among Wilco’s extensive catalog. It’s like Wilco is reminding us that, yeah, they can still do the gorgeous studio thing too. As a capstone for the record, it’s a fitting one. Doubt Wilco at your peril.