Wilco has been releasing its albums for free on the Internet dating back to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but with the 11-track Star Wars, which dropped last week as a free download, it was the first time they’d managed to keep an album’s very existence a secret. The most surprising thing about the band’s latest, though, is the music itself, which is by far the noisiest and most adventurous they’ve produced in over a decade, defiantly shattering the inarguably well-crafted but at times predictable adult-friendly folk-rock mold they’ve been mining since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky.
Because of the manner in which it was released and its astoundingly brisk running time, it’s tempting to initially approach Star Wars as a toss-off for the fans rather than a fully formed follow-up to 2011’s The Whole Love. But it’s actually one of Wilco’s most carefully constructed efforts from an instrumental standpoint, and this is the first time in over a decade that Jeff Tweedy’s current six-piece guitar army has felt like a fully cohesive unit in the studio. They’ve always been monstrous in a live setting, but in their recorded studio output since 2007, the band has often seemed miscast trying to temper the most interesting musical elements at their disposal, like Nels Cline’s freakazoid guitar playing Mikael Jorgensen’s electronic laptop loops, in order to blend into rather than elevate Tweedy’s simple folk tunes.
The songs on Star Wars are different. They sound like the result of hours of in-studio jamming edited down to only the most crucial, melodic elements (other than the opening 75-second instrumental “Ekg,” which is just ugly dissonance for dissonance’s sake). This allows an organic musical identity to emerge, which turns out to be lots of electric guitars, with Tweedy, Cline, and Pat Sansone’s guitar playing taking on a more central role than on any other Wilco album. But there’s virtually no loose jamming here; instead, there are tight, interlocking riffs like the bopping one that drives the standout “Random Name Generator” and the heavy, lurching backbones of “Cold Slope” and “King of You,” as well as bursts of earworm psych-rock leads on the hooky “More…” and the closing “Magnetized,” all interspersed with twonky experimental licks. On “You Satellite,” the guitarists build to a transportive coda that captures what it must feel like to take off into space (or at least what it feels like to watch people take off into space in the movies; this song would have worked better for Interstellar than that deafening Hans Zimmer organ motif).
Tweedy, apparently getting all the sentimentality out of his system with last year’s Sukirae, sounds more playful than ever, adapting a bemused Dylanesque sneer on “The Joke Explained” and penning lyrics that often sound less like the result of meditative introspection and more like they were improvised in the studio (there are few other ways to explain a song called “Pickled Ginger” that features lines like “Alone in the zone of the sad/And no one gives a zig to the zag”). But even when Tweedy does drift back into singer-songwriter mode on the ballad “Where Do I Begin,” Wilco doesn’t play it straight. Rather than a predictable acoustic guitar and lap-steel arrangement, they bang it out irreverently on a couple of garage-sounding electric guitars, before bursting into a triumphant coda, complete with backward drums and braying guitars. Turns out Wilco are still full of surprises.