“What’s more fun than a surprise?” Jeff Tweedy wrote on Wilco’s Instagram page to announce the arrival of their very-unexpected new (and at least for a time, free) album.
Well, this was definitely a surprise.
It’s the first new Wilco album since 2011’s The Whole Love. But in a more abstract way, it’s the first new album Wilco has released in almost a decade. The Whole Love was lauded as a corrective path after 2009’s Wilco (The Album). But the majority of the album’s praise seemed to state that The Whole Love was a hodgepodge of the best elements of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost Is Born, and Sky Blue Sky. The only problem with that compliment is why should listeners put on The Whole Love when they have three perfectly great albums to listen to instead?
Star Wars doesn’t suffer from that problem. It’s Wilco’s shortest album, coming in at a featherweight 33-minutes, nearly the same length as Against Me!’s “blink and you’ll miss it” Transgender Dysphoria Blues. And like that album, there’s a wonderful, punkish energy populating most of the songs on Star Wars. Gone are the Grateful Dead-style jammy breakdowns of ten-minute plus tracks like “One Sunday Morning” or “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” Instead, we get jumpy pop statements like “Random Name Generator” or the fuzzy mid-’70s guitar groove (courtesy of Nels Cline’s near-peerless guitar work) of “Pickled Ginger.” Aside from the immediate, goofy jolt of “Random Name Generator,” the finest song on Star Wars is “More…”. Armed with an immediately likable chorus, it’s Jeff Tweedy’s warmest vocal performance since the best moments on Sky Blue Sky.
Wilco songs tend to take on another light (and grow in stature) in a live setting. Tracks that were labeled too impersonable or sterile on A Ghost Is Born sounded perfectly intimate played in a live setting, as displayed in the Ghost songs on their double-live album Kicking Television. It seems that a few tracks on Star Wars that fall closer toward the ‘miss’ than ‘hit’ category will still sound fantastic live, namely “Taste the Ceiling” and the somewhat underwhelming closing track “Magnetized”.
Star Wars has the great, “fuck-it-all” carefree attitude that has populated other high-profile free releases, namely Nine Inch Nails’ The Slip and the collaborative effort of Chance the Rapper and Donnie Trumpet’s Surf. But the most bracing thing Star Wars brings to listeners is a whole new set of possibilities for Wilco. By stripping away their sound and for the most part, getting in and out of a song in about three minutes, Wilco has embraced their punkier roots. And for the first time in about a decade, listeners are now going to wonder what exactly a new Wilco album is going to sound like.