"Star Wars" is A Record To Make You Fall Back in Love With Wilco

I’m going to go out on a limb (the album was released as a surprise free download three days ago, with no warning and therefore no time for review consideration) and say that listening to Wilco’s Star Wars is like having my favourite band back.

That’s a big statement, and I should qualify it. I don’t necessarily think this is Wilco’s best album; I don’t necessarily even think it’s a great one. Who can tell at such an early stage? The point, though, is that our favourite bands don’t reach that elevated plateau only by releasing great collections of songs. It helps, but there’s a more troublesome alchemy at work.

Wilco, for instance, didn’t become anybody’s numero uno merely by dint of writing great pop/rock/country tunes (lots of people do that), but neither did they do so through the force of their psyched-out experimentalism (people who REALLY wanted experimental stuff knew they could find spacier excursions elsewhere). No: Wilco became the favourite of so many of us between 1999 and 2004 by being more willing than any other band I can think of to live in the space between tune and discord, between focus and dissolution, between what pleased our ears and what they had to work to enjoy.

Their evolution is exhaustively documented elsewhere, but for the neophyte: born out of the embers of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, in 1995 Wilco released A.M, a pleasant but relatively inconsequential pop-country record that was decisively overshadowed by Son Volt’s (the other half of Uncle Tupelo) Trace, which was by far the more mature, seasoned and, well, BETTER record. Wilco rose to the challenge with 1996’s Being There, a country/rock double-album that ticked all the requisite boxes while also hinting at an affinity for the noisy and the discordant; with 1999’s Summerteeth, a psychedelic pop opus that was at points downright disturbing (‘I dreamed about killing you again last night / And it felt all right to me …’ ran the opening of feedback-ridden epic ‘Via Chicago’); and most decisively with 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 2004’s A Ghost Is Born. To this day those two records are nearly peerless examples of what can be produced when a band with an innate mastery of the pop form is beset with the urge to pull apart their gifts and distort them to the point of outright disintegration.

Wilco have never released a bad record, and I never exactly stopped loving them

Wilco have never released a bad record, and I never exactly stopped loving them. But after A Ghost Is Born they recruited Nels Cline, an avant-jazz guitarist, and conversely moved with Sky Blue Sky in a more easy-listening direction whose spirit of experimentalism seemed mainly reserved for the new guitarist’s solos. It was great stuff - and disappointing. Kicking Television, a double live-album, proved that they were a performative force to be reckoned with, but Wilco (The Album) again felt like treading water: some songs were great, nearly every song was good, but Wilco fans weren’t being taken on the sometimes unpleasant journey that previous records had required. 2011’s The Whole Love was the same story: opener ‘Art of Always’ felt wonderfully confrontational, but apart from that there was something for everybody. A lovely record - and perhaps a better record than Star Wars - but not what I was after.

Star Wars, though, is the kind of record that was needed to make me fall back in love with Wilco. It’s messy, blurry and unfocused, and decidedly does not offer something for everyone. Instead, it invites everyone in and then asks them to think about what they want, what might be on offer, and what the benefits might be of opening their ears to the sound of someone with an adventuresome spirit, a daunting talent, and no particular need to please.

I was ready after edgy instrumental opener ‘EKG’ to be eased into another late-phase Wilco album, but it was not to be. ‘More …’ is a stuttering gem with a Bowie-esque gait and guitars that at points sound brilliantly like seagulls. ‘Random Name Generator’ might almost be from Ghost if it weren’t for a swampy lead riff that Marc Bolan could have written. ‘You Satellite’, a strong contender for the album’s best song, wanders out of a haze and chugs nebulously along like a sleepwalker; ‘building’ seems like a strange word for something so determinedly unstable, but build it does, giving Jeff Tweedy’s twin gifts for melody and distortion full rein and Glenn Kotche the opportunity to demonstrate once again why he’s possibly rock’s best drummer. ‘Taste the Ceiling’ is simply a perfect Wilco pop song, which is always welcome; ‘Where Do I Begin?’ seems to be the same thing, albeit with guitars from Sparklehorse’s Good Morning Spider, but then the band proceeds to turn it inside out and dance like maniacs in the final stretch. ’Magnetized’ is that other great Tweedy speciality, namely a classic song the Beatles never got around to writing.

Star Wars sounds like a single, flowing piece of work

Taking it song-by-song, however, ignores one of the things that makes Star Wars so appealing, which is that it’s an album that really sounds like a single, flowing piece of work. Gone is the crystal-clear production of the last few Wilco albums; this one sounds warm and vague and muddy, more like Tweedy’s other band Loose Fur than anything else Wilco have done. That suits the material down to the ground, and of course when a band is this technically good the production can afford to allow some rough edges. Tweedy’s on form lyrically, too, moving effortlessly between disjointed stream-of-consciousness barbs to earnest, poignant declarations (‘A miracle only ever grows wild’ comes to mind, as does ‘From where we end to where do I begin / I won’t ever, ever, ever fall apart like that again’). Especially poignant in the light of Tweedy’s wife’s recent struggle with lymphoma is ‘Where Do I Begin?’s plaintive ‘Why can’t I say something to make you well?’

Star Wars may not be an easy listen, and nor may it yield as many ear-worms as other albums of theirs, but it’s the sound of a band fully committed to living in the tense, beautiful spaces in which it’s most fully itself. Wilco never really went away, but they’re back.

More about the author

About the author

Abe Davies is a writer and journalist. He has a couple of literature degrees from UEA and St Andrews, and has written on everything from cognac to Shakespeare's ghosts to contemporary American photography. He's also worked in marketing and publicity in the publishing industry for five years, and when he was younger in a lot of restaurants.

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