It certainly doesn’t feel like it’s been four years since Wilco‘s last album. The band’s recent 20th anniversary activities notwithstanding – the rarities set Alpha Mike Foxtrot and an accompanying Best Of – Jeff Tweedy has kept himself commendably busy recently. There’s been his own Sukierae album, fronting fictional band Land Ho! in the sixth series of Parks And Recreation, as well as overseeing the final recordings from Pops Staples and producing Richard’s Thompson’s new album, Still. There is also the small matter of Wilco’s recent tour and a new DVD, Every Other Summer, documenting their Solid Sound Festival, which was released last month.
That changed, of course, at midnight GMT with the unexpected – though entirely welcome – release of Star Wars, the band’s ninth studio album. It’s a great title, and a great sleeve, too: a white cat pictured in front of a vase of flowers. Mischievously, one might be tempted to wonder whether Tweedy and his cohorts are deliberately attempting to nail as much click-bait traffic as possible here. Star Wars and pictures of cats: the very things Google searches were intended for.
The record has apparently been released as a ‘thank you’ to fans who’ve supported the band over the last two decades. It’s available free to download from the band’s website for the next 30 days. When it was recorded hasn’t yet been revealed. The album opens with “EKG”, a discordant instrumental jam that’s fleetingly reminiscent of the intro to Blur’s “He Thought Of Cars”. Tonally, it hints at a shift away from the textured work of The Whole Love or Wilco The Album.
As the album progresses, a loose, spontaneous sensibility emerges, along with several changes of mood and gear. Many of the songs blend scruffy guitar sounds with messy arrangements and where Tweedy’s vocals are often low down in the mix. But that’s not to suggest Star Wars sounds sloppy or thrown together: in fact, the band sound thrillingly energized. Certainly, “More” shifts in a number of enticing directions. There is something Bowie-ish (Hunky Dory, maybe?) in the opening acoustic chords and chunky, Mick Ronson riff; it tumbles into a catchy minor-chord chorus before a distorted noise solo disrupts the last minute or so. The new wave-ish “Random Name Generator” is propelled along by a barrage of riffs, underpinned by some vigorous time-keeping by Glenn Kotsche. Tweedy affects an unusual delivery for “The Joke Explained”, that sounds oddly like Julian Casablancas imitating Bob Dylan, meanwhile around the halfway mark, Nels Cline parachutes in a thin, needle-y guitar solo.
So, a quarter of the way through Star Wars, what have we learned? If anything, it’s that Wilco’s continual ability to confuse and confound can yield marvellous results. “You Satellite” continues to push Star Wars into unexpected directions. At the start, it has a bit of a third Velvet Underground album feel to it – a little strung out and uneasy, like “Jesus”, perhaps – but over the course of its 5:17 runtime, it musters uneasy beats and jittery guitar melodies into a brilliantly Wilconian wig-out. “I crawled all this way to hold your hand,” sings Tweedy, as Cline and Kotche drive the song towards an extended climax.
By contrast, the amiable “Taste The Ceiling” reminds us of the band’s capacity for melody: it sounds like a close cousin to “I Might” from The Whole Love. The hurried, anxious rhythms of “Pickled Ginger” – great title, incidentally – erupt into a speaker-melting solo from Cline. Meanwhile, the Beatles-y “Where Do I Begin” might be a tribute to Tweedy’s wife, Sue, who has been battling cancer. “Why can’t I say something to make you well?’” he sings, then later: “I won’t ever fall apart like that again.”
The final stretch starts with “Cold Slope”: a funky loping groove tied round Cline’s spindly guitar melodies. “King Of You” essentially feels like a continuation of the previous song. They close the album with the meditative, introverted “Magnetized”, which seems to fit in somewhere between decorous late Beatles balladry and something off Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs like “Tonite It Shows”, where Cline’s guitar elegantly pirouettes across a wintry soundscape.
It is a lovely, if low key, end to a terrific record.
Follow me on Twitter @MichaelBonner
The History Of Rock – a brand new monthly magazine from the makers of Uncut – a brand new monthly magazine from the makers of Uncut – is now on sale in the UK. Click here for more details.
Uncut: the spiritual home of great rock music.