Some bands use opening tracks as ambitious mission statements, perhaps pushing a new sound or luring the listener in with a widescreen introduction. Others offer a statement of intent by opening with their lead single or a similarly powerful song. On Star Wars, Wilco opt for the scare-the-listener-silly-with-apocalyptic-alien-invasion-sounding-guitars approach. And it works. The squalid guitars on opener EKG have an ominous War of the Worlds feel and the sonic onslaught is so out of kilter with what you might expect the latest Wilco album to sound like that it entices you immediately to listen on.
While it’s been four years since the last Wilco album, the six-piece still took the music world by surprise when they released their ninth record as a free download on their website. Calling it Star Wars in the year that the blockbuster franchise returns to the big screen and putting a fluffy cat on the front cover (the animal of choice it seems for web users) might initially strike a click-baiting tone. However, there’s enough quality throughout the eleven songs for it to stand up and be counted on its own accord. Perhaps they thought that if you rush release an album on the internet, you might as well as fully embrace the medium.
The teasing title suggests that Wilco are certainly up for trying new ideas and it’s an album full of fuzzy, warm and heartening takes from a band who seem completely at ease with themselves. Second track More has a conventional approach to songwriting compared to the opener and sounds like a brilliant Bowie b-side the Thin White Duke might have written around the release of Hunky Dory. In his lyrics, Jeff Tweedy discusses the instant gratification nature of our entertainment culture. Whether he’s an endorser isn’t quite clear but with the release of Star Wars, he’s certainly become part of the ‘I want it now’ lifestyle. I suppose if you can’t beat them…
Next track Random Name Generator kicks in with a Cribs-like riff, before giving in to a flood of spiralling guitars, while The Joke Explained channels Lou Reed at his most effervescent. Like many of the tracks on display, it’s a satisfying little nugget that is over before you know it. The splendid You Satellite clocks in as by far the longest song on the record at just over five minutes and allows them to meddle with a bit of a wider spectrum, but short is definitely sweet in the case of Star Wars. Tracks such as Taste The Ceiling arrive, entertain and bid farewell before ever outstaying their welcome, while Pickled Ginger is a fantastic slice of dirty glam rock stomp that Marc Nolan would have been proud to add to his set.
For a group once described as America’s Radiohead following the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a lo fi recording of glam-garage acoustics might not seem like an obvious step forward, but there’s enough talent in the songwriting and panache in the delivery to make it work. The less is more style also lets the songs speak for themselves and while a lot of the album targets the dancefloor, the beautiful end of the night number Where Do I Begin allows Tweedy to tug at the heartstrings to startling effect.
For an album that was unveiled instantaneously, it fits nicely that the songs are direct, adventurous and a little rough around the edges. Starting so spikely but ending through the hazy synth filter of Magnetized, this is Wilco creating music that doesn’t sound like Wilco. Which is maybe what we should be expecting from this band anyway. A triumphant return.