Album Review: Wilco – Star Wars

Wilco 2015

A few months ago, in a country far, far away… Wilco rumble back to life (photo: Danny Clinch, http://nbhap.com/daily/news/newsflash-17072015-wilco-elbow/)

Wilco

Star Wars (dBpm)

1 Star WarsWhy is it called Star Wars? Why is the cover artwork a painting of a cat? Why the sudden release — for free?

Wilco’s ninth album arrives in a flurry of questions. They’re excited questions, but most are imbued with more than a touch of bafflement. A thunderbolt album from one of the best-loved American bands of the past twenty years, Star Wars is the latest title to pull off the increasingly popular trick of catching the world off-guard. However, as opposed to the likes of Beyoncé’s self-titled opus, Wilco’s stunt is an exercise in confounding expectations beyond the surprise drop itself. Star Wars immediately mocks the very idea of over-analysis by dressing itself in off-the-cuff goofiness, cutting off hype at the knees before it’s barely had the chance to develop. Come on, it’s called Star Wars, the cover is a painting of a cat, and it was cheerily released for free via the band’s own website. By skewering any expectations of grandeur or preciousness, what remains is something loose, fun, and light on its feet, and through this backwards logic, Wilco have actually come through with a solid, modest rock album that’s among their finest releases of the past decade.

Avoiding anything remotely overblown, Jeff Tweedy and co. seem to have relished this chance to cut loose. Over and done with in less than 35 minutes, Star Wars is bereft of distorted non-sequiturs and emotional juggernauts alike; further facets which longstanding fans may find slightly off-kilter. However, the brevity of these songs serves as a smokescreen, disguising the band’s intellect behind what appears to be rawk simplicity: a leather-bound surface that, when pulled away, reveals a team of brilliant minds at work. At first, ‘Random Name Generator’ sounds like one of the most basic rock songs Wilco have yet recorded, but the group’s acuity slyly pokes through. Tweedy’s affable drawl belies the complexity of his snaking vocal melody, and the sprightly way that the song pops into its playful, crunchy denouement is purely gleeful. It’s a technique that serves them well throughout Star Wars, with neat tricks often concealed behind deceptively simple hooks. Centrepiece ‘You Satellite’ progresses as if filling a bag with Wilco’s primary assets (Nels Cline’s chiming, intricate fretwork, brisk percussion, insistent droning), before giving the whole thing a good shake for the conclusion, churning the song into a heady, jumbled delight.

The latter is the only cut which exceeds four minutes in length, and the brevity of Star Wars as a whole demonstrates the group’s collective comfort in its own skin. While loosely bound together by neat mid-tempo numbers, Star Wars takes on a number of guises; each song distinct while retaining a sense of cohesion thanks to the ever-pristine, discreet production. It’s a trip that rarely disengages the listener: ‘Pickled Ginger’ hums away over rising amplifier heat, its low-slung biker blues echoing the tone of Spoon’s ‘Small Stakes’; a melange of reversed drums and weeping guitars roughs up the surface of ‘Where Do I Begin’; and ‘Magnetized’ closes the album sounding like Queen on depressants, pulling together ticking-clock metronomes and Brian May-saluting guitars to end on Wilco’s punch-drunk signature. Of all assembled, there’s nothing that truly jolts Wilco from their gentle mellowing, but given they can still conjure songs as compulsively catchy as ‘Random Name Generator’, this hardly warrants disdain.

And that seems to be the point. With Star Wars, Wilco aren’t delivering world-beaters or mission statements, but cutting straight to the chase and letting their superb musical talents do the talking. The resulting work sounds anything but overthought or uncertain, and this apparent effortlessness is Star Wars’ greatest triumph. It’s casual while not forgetting to care, laidback while invigorated, and subtly deceptive without being smug. So why the cat? Why the title? Why the free release? Why any of it?

Who knows. What matters is that they just went ahead and did it. And that’s possibly why it’s so enjoyable.

“I won’t ever ever ever fall apart like that again.”

29/07/15

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Posted on July 29, 2015, in The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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